Imaging genetics in psychiatry

(a) Manhattan plot shows genome-wide associations between single nucleotide polymorphisms and bilateral putamen structure in the brain (b). From Elliot et al, 2018.

There is currently no known cure or cause for several serious psychiatric disorders that disrupt functioning of the human mind. Our group have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to reveal subtle alterations in brain structure and function in people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. Until recently, scientists didn’t know much about what causes these brain alterations, which is difficult to learn with MRI techniques alone. As technology rapidly evolves, new methods are emerging to evaluate the impact of genetic factors on brain structure and function. With these methods, recent studies demonstrate crucial interactions between genetics and brain health (see figure for example) and suggest that genetic factors contribute to macroscopic brain alterations in people with psychiatric illness. Despite this progress, several open challenges remain, which must be overcome to understand gene-brain relationships in psychiatric disorders and to translate these findings into clinically meaningful and actional outcomes in psychiatry.

Further research and key questions
  • Develop and improve methods to understand gene-brain relationships in psychiatric disorders.
  • Identify links between specific genetic signals with specific brain alterations.
  • Understand the functional impact of genetic variation on brain structure by mapping gene expression brain atlases to neuroimaging data.
  • Explore the respective contributions of genetic predisposition and environmental exposure to the development of psychiatric disorders.
  • Can genetic-imaging associations improve prediction of psychopathology, illness progression and treatment outcomes?
Project leaders

Maria Di Biase

Further reading

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