Biology Behind Mental Illness

Biology Behind Mental Illness

As with many chronic diseases, mental illnesses are biologically based. In addition, there are physical, social, and environmental factors that can play a role in their development. A mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, as it is a medical problem, just like heart disease or diabetes. Offering education about the biological basis of mental health disorders can lead to greater understanding and acceptance and help those with mental health concerns to feel less ashamed of their disorders.1

Mental illnesses can be genetic, which suggests that people who have a family member living with a mental illness may be somewhat more likely to develop one themselvesLike any hereditary illness, susceptibility is passed on in families through genes. Current research focuses on people who have a strong genetic risk factor for schizophrenia, with the goal of proving that intervention at an early stage may result in better treatment outcomes and potentially change the course of the illness.3,4, But the way these genes present themselves in each individual can be different due to unique irregularities of environmental factors. Because of this, a person can inherit a susceptibility to a mental illness but not necessarily develop the illness itself. That being said, the interaction of genetics and other factors can influence, or trigger, an illness in a person who has inherited the susceptibility.5

Neuroscience is advancing thanks to a deeper understanding of genomics, biomarkers, and non-invasive imaging tools. There is an impressive and growing suite of technologies to study the structure and function of large-scale brain circuitry with real accuracy and precision. These technologies are rapidly changing the way we think about, study, and approach the development of new treatments.6

For example, thanks to brain imaging technology, there has been a drastic increase in knowledge about normal brain function and how mental illnesses can impact the brain. Mental illnesses have been linked to irregular functioning of nerve cell circuits or pathways that connect particular brain regions. Discoveries in recent years about how the brain functions have provided biological explanations for various mental illnesses. Imaging studies have revealed that, the longer you live with depression or schizophrenia, the more damage it does to the brain; in fact, this imaging has shown that parts of the brain shrink with lengthy or repeat episodes.7

Additionally, neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. Mental illnesses develop when neurons in the brain stop communicating or when there is a problem with neurons communicating.8, These discoveries reinforce the idea that someone with a mental illness should be treated no differently than someone struggling with another serious illness.

If you or a loved one is having a mental health crisis, know that there is help. Go to the nearest hospital, emergency room, call 1-800-273-TALK or text HELLO to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to reach someone live. You can also call 911 for immediate assistance. If you are living outside of the U.S., see a full list of country-specific suicide hotlines here.

1“The Roots of Mental Illness.” Science Watch. American Psychological Association, 2012. Web Oct. 2017.

2Petterson, E, et al. “Common Psychiatric Disorders Share the Same Genetic Origin: A Multivariate Sibling Study of the Swedish Population.” Molecular Psychiatry Journal Volume 21(5). (2016): 17–21.

3Graves, G. “The Mind Matters: This Janssen Researcher Is on a Mission to Change How We Treat Mental Illness.” Neuroscience. Janssen.

4Gejman, P, et al. “The Role of Genetics in the Etiology of Schizophrenia.” Psychiatric Clinics of North America Volume 33(1). (2011): 35–66.

5Kendler, K, et al. “The Structure of Genetic and Environmental Risk Factors for Syndromal and Subsyndromal Common DSM-IV Axis I and All Axis II Disorders.” American Journal of Psychiatry Volume 168(1). (2011):29–39.

6Mufford, M, et al. “Neuroimaging Genomics in Psychiatry—A Translational Ppproach.” Genome Medicine Volume 9(102). (2017).

7Graves, G. “The Mind Matters: This Janssen Researcher Is on a Mission to Change How We Treat Mental Illness.” Neuroscience. Janssen.

8National Institutes of Health. “NIH Curriculum Supplement Series.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2007.