- The Human Genome Project was a 13-year research project dedicated to mapping the human genome. It was the tip of the iceberg for a field of study called genomics: the study of genomes, or the complete set of genes a species carries.
- The project uncovered the ways that many chronic physical diseases are passed down from our parents. But psychologists and psychiatrists have long wondered whether mental health conditions could be genetically transferred as well.
- Though mental health conditions currently don’t appear to be 100% heritable (genetically passed from our parents), genomics research highlights that conditions such as schizophrenia, OCD, and bipolar disorder range from 21-45% chance of heritability.
- Knowing whether or not mental health conditions may run in your family is important, and can best be done through inquiring with your relatives, or by seeking preventative mental health services.
- Companies like Ancestry and 23andMe can help identify your genetic risk for some mental health conditions with DNA testing, but talking to a mental health professional is still the best course of action.
You may not remember when The Human Genome Project completed its 13-year massive undertaking in 2003. The researchers involved with the project finished mapping the entire human genome sequence, which represents the full 20,000-25,000 genes that we carry in our DNA. Every trait that can be physically expressed is contained within our genome. Its genetic code passes on the traits that help determine everything from our height to our build and even our dominant hand.
The completion of that massive project quickly ushered in a new era of discovery and research into the field of genetics. The work done by the Human Genome Project highlighted the ways in which many of the chronic physical diseases we suffer from can be heritable (transmissible from our parents). But for years, many psychiatric researchers have wondered what role genomics could play in our emotional wellbeing. The biggest question is: Could mental health conditions be genetically inherited, as well?
Genomics and Personality
When someone develops a mental health condition, there are several factors at play — and heritability is just one. Another deciding element is a person’s environment, which can unlock genes that lay previously dormant. Environmental variables are plentiful: exposure to stress, childhood trauma, even our diet can affect our mental health. However, even without environmental influence, genomics and personality seem to have a strong link.
In fact, one gene that affects our ability to produce serotonin (a chemical that makes us happy and euphoric) seems to offer proof. The human 5-HTT gene affects our ability to transport serotonin throughout the brain—but the amount of serotonin that we may have access to is dependent on whether we have the “short” or “long” variation. People with the longer gene variant are able to produce and transport more serotonin in their brain, meaning that they’re actually rewarded for taking risks and novelty-seeking behavior. But for those with the shorter variant, their brains produce less serotonin, and this increases their chances for practicing harm avoidance or developing neurotic tendencies.
This is similar to the role that dopamine plays in the behavior of risk-taking and harm avoidance. Those who crave new, thrilling adventures (novelty-seekers) are often rewarded for their behavior by their brain, which has a high number of active dopamine receptors. Conversely, those who try to avoid potentially negative outcomes (those with harm avoidance tendencies) by shunning new situations tend to be more dopamine starved. If we’re to put stock in these recent findings, then the relationship between genomics and personality may also prove a useful tool in predicting human behavior.
Do Mental Health Conditions Run in Families?
The short answer is: Yes, but it’s complicated. According to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, genomics research indicates our chances of inheriting the following mental health disorders from our parents alone:
- 45% for schizophrenia
- 37% for OCD
- 21% for bipolar disorder
It’s interesting to note that according to the same study that 47% of all genetics tests are ordered by psychiatrists, who are starting to use genomics to search for gene variants (like the short and long serotonin gene), which can indicate that someone may be susceptible to mental health conditions. It seems that genomics, personality traits, and mental health conditions are closely linked. So if certain conditions are prevalent on one or both sides of your family tree, then it might be prudent to take precautions in order to avoid developing a mental health condition yourself.
This is a new area of development in the field of mental health studies and clinical practices. Being able to examine a patient’s genes to look for mental health risks offers a whole new level of patient care. But considering that most of us weren’t part of The Human Genome Project, is there anything we can do to evaluate our own risk for developing a mental health condition?
Evaluating Our Potential Risk for Mental Health Conditions
There are a few things we can do to make sure that we keep our risk of developing a mental health condition low. The first, and most obvious, is to have genetic testing done. Genealogy companies (Ancestry) claim that they can help to identify your risk for developing schizophrenia, depression, and more by examining your genes. But keep in mind: These companies can’t accurately assess your mental health risk the way that a therapist or counselor can. Even if you have a high likelihood of inheriting a mental health condition, your lifestyle habits will contribute largely to whether you develop a given condition.
One of the best ways to counteract a genetic predisposition and to reduce stress (which may serve as a trigger for gene alterations that lead to mental health conditions) is to take active measures to mitigate your risk. This might include:
- Proactively seeking a mental health professional for preventative care: If mental health disorders run in your family, consider whether talking to a counselor or psychiatrist could be helpful. Even if you feel like your mental health is immaculate, everyone accumulates some emotional baggage throughout the week.
- Talking with your family members about your risk: While it’s important to respect personal boundaries, talking with them can be invaluable—relatives with mental health conditions may be willing to talk to you about their symptoms or the age at which they first started noticing their condition. Genomics might help us in predicting human behavior, but you aren’t 100% likely to develop a condition simply because an immediate family member has.
- Confronting and addressing any anxiety you may have about developing a mental health condition: It’s common for us to feel ashamed or worried about our future when we experience dissonance as a result of mental health conditions. Being diagnosed with any condition doesn’t mark you for life, nor does it take away from your identity as a person. If you are diagnosed, seek professional assistance, and take refuge in knowing that everything will be okay. If you’re ever lost, our therapists and counselors are only a phone call away.
Genomics may help us with predicting human behavior, but it’s still a new frontier; one that’s slowly built a bridge between our understanding of the relationship between genomics and mental health conditions. Although we understand that certain mental health conditions may have some likelihood of being genetically passed on, we still don’t know the full spectrum of factors that contribute to developing mental health conditions.
The code written in the human genome may have some glitches and errors that contribute to mental health conditions, but as we understand more about ourselves, we might be able to start fixing some of these typos in the process. Genetics testing and genomics aside, the best way to find relief for mental health conditions is still to reach out to a provider, especially if you’re at increased risk because of your family history.