Author: Cathy Robinson, BScDipNutMed

The Genetic Basis of Psychological Disorders

The Genetic Basis of Psychological Disorders

Table of Contents:


Ground-breaking research into genetics has discovered genes which contribute to the development of several psychological disorders.

Genes behind ADHD, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, schizophrenia and autism have now been identified.

We always take an evidence-based approach and in this article we’ll look at the effects of these genes and how this knowledge may help with the treatment of these disorders.


The Genetics of Psychological Disorders

The aim of the study was to discover more about the neurobiological pathways found in these five disorders.

Research looked at the genes of over 400,000 people and discovered several sets of genes which increase the risk of all the disorders (1).

The genes they discovered play a role in the same biological pathways or were active in similar organs or tissues, notably the brain.

Science previously suspected many psychiatric disorders were related to one another because they often run in families.

Blood relatives frequently suffer from one of a number of these disorders, but not necessarily the same one.


Synapses – the Brain’s Communication Network

Brain cells communicate with one another by sending messages across tiny gaps between them, called synapses.

In this way the message can jump from one brain cell to the next.

This process occurs with the help of chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters.

These are chemicals which are released at the end of the nerve fibre when a nerve impulse arrives.

When the chemical diffuses across the synapse, the impulse is transferred to the next nerve cell.

The message needs to be tightly controlled, otherwise it may be delivered to the wrong adjoining brain cell, not delivered at all, or it may be delivered multiple times to the same neighbouring cell, like a persistent door to door salesman.


Gene Activity in the Brain

In all, the researchers identified 19 sets of genes significantly associated with all five of the disorders.

They also identified genes which had been previously associated with one of the disorders but now appear to have a link to each of the others.

The most common genetic variations between individuals are called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, often pronounced ‘snips’.

Each SNP is a difference in a single building block of our DNA.

Nine of the genes identified directed activity of the brain’s synapses, whereas others were connected with the regulation of calcium in the brain, believed to be a factor in schizophrenia (2).

Genes direct the activity of proteins, which can determine the levels of synaptic plasticity in the brain.

This term is used to describe the strength or volume of the message passing between two synapses, which can change - from over the short or long term - to adapt to our environment.

Whether certain genes are switched on or off can determine which messages are heard and which are ignored, as well as the volume of the message.

The genes exert their effects in specific parts of the brain, largely the cerebellum, which receives information from the senses and co-ordinates movements like balance, co-ordination and speech.

They also have effects in the frontal cortex which acts as the brain’s control panel, regulating emotional expression, judgement and language.

Science is now discovering dysfunction in these two areas of the brain is present in many psychological disorders.


The Biological Basis of Psychological Disorders

Previously, psychological and psychiatric disorders have been diagnosed according to sets of symptoms.

These often overlap meaning the disorders have traditionally been difficult to precisely define.

The discovery of these genes indicates it is likely imbalances in similar pathways may lie behind many of these disorders.

An understanding of these pathways may help to shed light on biological mechanisms related to symptoms common to all the disorders, such as sleep disturbances, depression and problems with learning, memory or perception.

Research such as this is geared towards the development of new drugs to target the common pathways influenced by the relevant genes.

This would pave the way towards more individual centred therapy, driven by clusters of symptoms rather than named disorders.

Effectively this research has the potential to make medicine more personalised to the genetic makeup of a particular individual.

However, knowing which natural factors such as nutrients or herbs are able to influence these pathways can also help natural medicine practitioners to support psychological health.



It appears psychological disorders such as autism, ADHD and schizophrenia are manifestations of similar altered signalling pathways in the brain.

Research is discovering how our genes can affect the way we think and behave by altering our brain chemicals.

The idea of Personalised Health is fundamental to Amchara’s philosophy, and genetic testing to reveal your own inherited tendencies may be recommended if appropriate by your practitioner.

If you would like to further explore the concept of personalised health, why not enquire about a free 360° health consultation?

We’re dedicated to providing you with both insightful information and evidence-based content, all orientated towards the Personalised Health approach.

We believe sharing knowledge and experience is an important part of achieving optimal health and would love to hear your views and experiences.

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