In psychiatry, more than any other clinical discipline, the promises of the genetics revolution ring hollow. After a number of false starts, researchers find themselves unable to identify the genetic root of any psychiatric disorder. While most people believe that it is only a matter of time before genetic research into psychiatry yields useful results, the stagnation in the field has caused others to call into question the genetic nature of many psychiatric illnesses. Here, we explore the current state and future prospect of psychiatric research and treatment.

False Starts

You’ve probably seen the headline a dozen times “Researchers at State College University Discover the Gene for Depression”. And yet it seems like no progress has been made towards understanding the genetic basis for psychiatric diseases. How can this be?

Well the fundamental reason for the lack of progress is that psychiatric diseases, like most interesting genetic traits, are the result of complex interactions between a number of genes. Every study that gets talked about in the media is only a small part of a very complex puzzle. It will take many years of broader more detailed studies to start to uncover the patterns in which these genes interact to cause psychiatric disorders.

However the problem goes deeper than that. The entire search for genetic causes of psychiatric diseases is undermined by the vague and arbitrary nature of psychiatric diagnosis. Many people are shocked to find out that there is no ‘test’ for depression, schizophrenia or any other psychiatric disease. There are only generally accepted guidelines (found in DSM-IV – the current edition of the diagnostic and statistical manual). Human inconsistencies in assigning diagnoses make it extremely difficult to do statistical analysis across studies.

Even more problematic than inconsistency in assigning psychiatric diagnoses, is inconsistency in the diagnoses themselves. Psychiatric diseases are a poorly designed, fuzzy set. That means that patients often fit into the definitions of mulitiple diseases. This ambiguity is a consequence of diagnosis using external symptoms. Because every person is different, their disease manifests in different ways, making it very difficult to identify exactly what their pathology is. Ths suggests that the search for genetic causes to psychiatric diseases may never bear fruit.

The Contemporary Moment: Psychiatry and its Critics

Contemporary Psychiatry

The Anti-psychiatry Movement

Post-psychiatry: A vision for psychiatry in the age of Personalized Medicine


A Schizophrenic Mouse

Dr. Frankenstein’s Mouse


One comment

  1. […] Far from being the final frontier of molecular biology, genetics has proven to be a launching point for a new age of exploration. In this blog we will chronicle this stage in the quest for understanding of molecular biology. We will keep tabs on progress from the incipient stages of research into epigenetics and the development of next-generation genetic technologies. We will also pay close attention to how these developments affect the future of medicine and psychiatry. […]

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