Gene Linked to Mental Illness, Suicide

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, June 15, 1991 | Go to article overview

Gene Linked to Mental Illness, Suicide


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Scientists have tagged an unlikely gene, with still-mysterious functions, as a possible predisposing influence on nearly 8 percent of all suicides and psychiatric hospitalizations in the United States. When inherited from both parents, the gene causes Wolfram syndrome, characterized by diabetes, severe vision problems and various neurological disorders. People with one copy of the gene--about 1 percent of the U.S. population--face about eight times the risk of psychiatric hospitalization or suicide compared with individuals who lack the gene, assert psychiatrist Ronnie G. Swift and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.

Because scientists currently have no test for identifying carriers of the gene, Swift's team took an indirect approach, studying hospital records and self-reports from relatives of people with Wolfram syndrome. Within the next five years, they hope to develop enzyme probes to isolate the gene and identify its physiological functions.

In the meantime, their study offers the first clear evidence that inheriting this gene from one parent creates a predisposition to serious psychiatric disorders and suicide, says medical geneticist Michael Swift, a coauthor of the report. "We have to determine how [the gene] interacts with other genes and with the environment," he adds.

Others view the findings more cautiously. "This is an interesting preliminary report, but it doesn't prove that the Wolfram gene predisposes people to psychiatric disorders," says psychologist David L. Pauls of Yale University School of Medicine. Future studies must assess participants' psychiatric disorders more carefully, he says.

While the new results give "some indication" of a specific genetic link to mental illness, they require confirmation with DNA probes, adds Elliot S. …

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