Etiology in psychiatry: embracing the reality of poly-gene-environmental causation of mental illness

World Psychiatry. 2017 Jun;16(2):121-129. doi: 10.1002/wps.20436.


Intriguing findings on genetic and environmental causation suggest a need to reframe the etiology of mental disorders. Molecular genetics shows that thousands of common and rare genetic variants contribute to mental illness. Epidemiological studies have identified dozens of environmental exposures that are associated with psychopathology. The effect of environment is likely conditional on genetic factors, resulting in gene-environment interactions. The impact of environmental factors also depends on previous exposures, resulting in environment-environment interactions. Most known genetic and environmental factors are shared across multiple mental disorders. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder, in particular, are closely causally linked. Synthesis of findings from twin studies, molecular genetics and epidemiological research suggests that joint consideration of multiple genetic and environmental factors has much greater explanatory power than separate studies of genetic or environmental causation. Multi-factorial gene-environment interactions are likely to be a generic mechanism involved in the majority of cases of mental illness, which is only partially tapped by existing gene-environment studies. Future research may cut across psychiatric disorders and address poly-causation by considering multiple genetic and environmental measures across the life course with a specific focus on the first two decades of life. Integrative analyses of poly-causation including gene-environment and environment-environment interactions can realize the potential for discovering causal types and mechanisms that are likely to generate new preventive and therapeutic tools.

Keywords: Psychiatric genetics; autism; bipolar disorder; classification of mental disorders; depression; environmental risk factors; gene-environment interactions; life course research; schizophrenia.