The genetics of mental illness: implications for practice

Bull World Health Organ. 2000;78(4):455-63.


Many of the comfortable and relatively simple models of the nature of mental disorders, their causes and their neural substrates now appear quite frayed. Gone is the idea that symptom clusters, course of illness, family history and treatment response would coalesce in a simple way to yield valid diagnoses. Also too simple was the concept, born of early pharmacological successes, that abnormal levels of one or more neurotransmitters would satisfactorily explain the pathogenesis of depression or schizophrenia. Gone is the notion that there is a single gene that causes any mental disorder or determines any behavioural variant. The concept of the causative gene has been replaced by that of genetic complexity, in which multiple genes act in concert with non-genetic factors to produce a risk of mental disorder. Discoveries in genetics and neuroscience can be expected to lead to better models that provide improved representation of the complexity of the brain and behaviour and the development of both. There are likely to be profound implications for clinical practice. The complex genetics of risk should reinvigorate research on the epidemiology and classification of mental disorders and explain the complex patterns of disease transmission within families. Knowledge of the timing of the expression of risk genes during brain development and of their function should not only contribute to an understanding of gene action and the pathophysiology of disease but should also help to direct the search for modifiable environmental risk factors that convert risk into illness. The function of risk genes can only become comprehensible in the context of advances at the molecular, cellular and systems levels in neuroscience and the behavioural sciences. Genetics should yield new therapies aimed not just at symptoms but also at pathogenic processes, thus permitting the targeting of specific therapies to individual patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Genetics, Behavioral
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / drug therapy
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology
  • Mental Disorders / genetics*