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Mental Illness – the by-product of evolutionary changes?

This is our final guest blog for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 from Carole, a member of our community mental health hub in Watford. Drawing on recent research, Carole explains how being prone to mental illness may genetic in a similar way to some physical illnesses.

Many thanks, Carole, for your contribution to #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.

A study by geneticists at Stanford University, USA, has put forward the hypothesis that the same evolutionary changes that make humans prone to bad backs and impacted wisdom teeth, may also be modifying genes in ways that make the brain vulnerable to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.

Many scientists have long been of the opinion that common ailments like lower back pain, knee and foot pain, are likely to be due to the evolution of upright walking in the human pedigree history. Similarly, the fact that 70 percent of adults develop impacted wisdom teeth, could well be connected to the evolutionary reduction of jaw size and modern changes in diet.

By the same token, the rapid expansion of brain size and cerebral abilities, which have been key in humankind’s evolutionary success, may at the same time be causing common psychiatric diseases in the human population. The scientists’ findings suggest evolutionary modifications in brain circuitry may be one of the factors associated with the development of these illnesses.

Specifically, the scientists focused on the gene for a protein called CACNA1C, which helps direct the flow of calcium in and out of cells. Calcium influences the electrical activity of neurons and helps control the release of the neurotransmitters that neurons use to communicate with each other. Previous research has tied CACNA1C to risks for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive symptoms and autism.

The research team’s analysis may mean that in the future psychiatrists will be able to better match a patient’s particular DNA risk factors with the drugs most likely to be beneficial.

Let’s hope psychiatry evolves alongside these developments in research but progress may well need a revolution in attitudes towards mental health as well as an evolution in data.

Reference: Discover magazine, 9 August 2018. Article: Could Human Evolutionary Changes be Behind Mental Disorders? By Charles Choi

Carole is a published author of two books on schizophrenia and a collection of poetry.

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