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Study: Disparate Psychiatric Disorders Share Widespread Genetic Overlap

Results of a new meta-analysis indicate that psychiatric disorders like ADHD, OCD, and bipolar disorder likely share important similarities at a molecular level — an interrelationship that current diagnostic categories do not reflect.



July 12, 2018

According to a new study published in Science,1 psychiatric disorders — unlike genetically distinct neurological disorders — may share important similarities at a molecular level. In this international collaboration, researchers found widespread genetic overlap across different types of psychiatric disorders, most notably attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder (MDD), and schizophrenia.

To perform a comprehensive heritability and correlation analysis of genetic patterns across 25 brain disorders, researchers included any meta-analyses of any common brain disorders for which they were able to identify a genome-wide association study (GWAS) with sufficient sample size. The total study sample comprised 265,218 patients with different brain disorders and 784,643 healthy individuals who served as the control group. The researchers also examined the relationship between brain disorders and 17 physical or cognitive measures, such as years of education, from almost 1.2 million people.

Results showed that ADHD, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, MDD, and schizophrenia shared a high degree of reciprocal correlation [average genetic correlation (rg) = 0.40]. Researchers also noted a strong correlation between anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and schizophrenia, as well as between Tourette syndrome, OCD, and MDD.

In contrast, neurological disorders appeared more distinct from one another compared with psychiatric disorders, suggesting greater diagnostic specificity and/or more distinct origins. Parkinson disease, Alzheimer disease, generalized epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis showed little to no correlation with other brain disorders.

The only significant cross-category correlations were between migraine and ADHD, MDD, and Tourette syndrome.

More years of education and college attainment were positively correlated with certain psychiatric disorders – namely anorexia nervosa, autism spectrum disorder, bipolar disorder, OCD, and schizophrenia. However, neurological disorders like Alzheimer and stroke were negatively correlated with those same cognitive measures.

“It was… surprising that the genetic factors related to many psychiatric disorders were positively correlated with educational attainment,” said co-author Verneri Anttila, a research fellow at the Broad Institute of Cambridge, in a press release.2 “We’ll need more work and even larger sample sizes to understand these connections.”

Consistent with a previous meta-analysis,3 body mass index showed significant positive genetic correlation to ADHD.

As noted in the study’s press release, “the high degree of genetic correlation among the psychiatric disorders suggests that current clinical categories do not accurately reflect the underlying biology.” “This study may provide important ‘scaffolding’ to support a framework for investigating mental disorders, incorporating many levels of information to understand basic dimensions of brain function,” concluded the authors.


1Brainstorm Consortium, Anttila V, Bulik-Sullivan B, Finucane HK, et al. “Analysis of shared heritability in common disorders of the brain.” Science online, 22 June 2018. doi: 10.1126/science.aap8757

2Psychiatric disorders share an underlying genetic basis [news release]. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale School of Medicine. Published June 22, 2018.

3Cortese S, Moreira-Maia CR, St Fleur D, Morcillo-Peñalver C, Rohde LA, Faraone SV. “Association Between ADHD and Obesity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2016 January;173(1):34-43. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15020266

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  1. Can you please give some of the genetics related to ADHD and relate psychiatric disorders and more information about “the high degree of genetic correlation among the psychiatric disorders suggests that current clinical categories do not accurately reflect the underlying biology.” Is MTHFR one of the genes involved in these conditions? Thanks.

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