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Home test for schizophrenia opens the door on genetic testing

(Aug 4, 2006)

One per cent of all Americans -- some 2.4 million people -- have schizophrenia. An estimated 5.7 million have bipolar disorder. And 2.2 million adults have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What if you found out tomorrow that you could become one of them?

Within two years, a Kentucky medical genetics company plans to market a home test designed to help consumers determine whether they are genetically susceptible to schizophrenia.

The test, performed at home and analyzed in a lab, is the culmination of 10 years of research -- and for better or worse, an example of what the brave new genomic world has wrought.

The AssureGene test for schizophrenia was developed by SureGene, the Louisville, Ky., company that plans to market the assessment.

Genes, the minuscule, biological "instruction manuals'' that tell our bodies how to develop, have been tied to cocaine addiction, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anorexia nervosa and more.

Still, scientists greet some new genetic tests with reservations. And they worry that the emphasis on genetics gives consumers the frightening impression that they are doomed from the womb. Psychiatric illnesses are complex, they say -- and there is far more to ponder than biology.

"It's a complicated public health message,'' says Holly Peay, co-chairwoman of the psychiatric genetic special interest group for the National Society of Genetic Counselors and associate director of the genetic counseling training program at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md.

"What we're hoping happens is that the public and individuals and families increasingly understand that mental illness has a strong biological component and a strong environmental component.''

Dr. J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, adds, "You can't separate the two. It's not nature versus nurture -- it's nature and nurture.''

Consider the past. Karen Mann has. She knows that once lithium was the medication for bipolar disorder. And a dark and lingering stigma accompanied the words "mental illness.'' There were no options and little hope.

So four years ago, when Mann learned she was bipolar -- also called "manic-depression'' for its sweeping mood swings -- she remembered that her grandmother had the disorder, too.

But unlike her grandmother, Mann, 30, has had the benefit of several medications. She also is a psychiatric nurse and a board member for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maryland.

Today, researchers are untangling the roots of several disorders.

"It is an exciting time,'' says Stephen Doochin, executive director and chief development officer for NARSAD: The Mental Health Research Association, founded 20 years ago as the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.

Over the years, the organization has broadened its reach, funding $194 million in mental-health research, including $66 million in genetics-related studies.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Interesting idea, as long as the marketing makes it crystal clear that having a genetic marker for vulnerability to schizophrenia does not mean that the individual will necessarily develop the disorder or any symptoms of the disorder.


I agree. I do hope they will have balanced guidelines about how this kind of genetic screening is done for anything.
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