A neuroscientist explains how your genes affect your mental health
There are a great many factors that affect your mental health – but is there a gene for depression or anxiety?
When it comes to things that protect or harm our mental health, the role of our genes is often an afterthought. After all, mental health disorders and issues are products of our minds and brains, whereas our genes are microscopic elements of our DNA. It may seem a bit of a reach to assume that the two are connected.
This is wrong, though. Scientific research has revealed that many mental health disorders have a significant genetic component, which undoubtedly shapes our understanding and treatment of them.
If you step back and look at it logically, it makes perfect sense that our genes would influence our mental health. After all, as intangible as they may be in so many ways, our minds, consciousness, thoughts and emotions are all products of activity in the brain, of the countless complex signals being sent and received by billions of brain cells, also known as neurons. And these signals depend on intricately complicated brain cells working as they should. The good functioning of cells is reliant upon the molecules that make them up. And these molecules, particularly proteins, are determined by our genes.
This means that if there’s a flaw or issue with the code in a specific gene, the molecules it produces won’t be quite the right shape. And for proteins in particular, their shape is a crucial aspect of their ability to interact with other molecules in the appropriate way, which is what they’re for. This means that any cell which has these flawed proteins will be less able to function properly. And if these cells are neurons, then the processes that lead to the formation of our minds can be affected, sometimes in ways that are disruptive, or at least unhelpful.
So, although it’s via several steps, it’s easy to see that our genes can play a role in our mental health. This isn’t to say that they’re the sole factor determining our mental health. It’s not the case that some people have a specific ‘depression gene’ or ‘anxiety mutation’, and that those with these genetic traits develop the eponymous disorder, and those without them never will.
In truth, the brain is far too complex for that, particularly when it comes to the parts that result in our mind. There are so many components at work, so many systems combining to give rise to consciousness, and so much redundancy and adaptability in your typical brain, that a single atypical gene automatically producing a (complex and versatile) disorder is extremely unlikely, just like how a single poorly installed circuit in an electricity grid doesn’t inevitably lead to a blackout.
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However, genetic factors can increase the risk of mental health issues, or make us more vulnerable to developing them, by reducing the brain’s ability to deal with or compensate for traumas and other disruptions. This is presumably why many mental health problems are seemingly hereditary, and why some mental health conditions seem to have similar genetic attributes.
Overall, it’s fair to say that genes play a significant role in our mental health. But so do many other things. And that’s where it gets confusing.
- This article first appeared in issue 370 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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Dean is a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’. He is the author of the the popular Guardian Science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ (now ‘Brain Yapping’ on the Cosmic Shambles Network with accompanying podcast), the bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, and his first book aimed at teens, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It.