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World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics Opens in Boston

The XXIst World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics opened today (October 17, 2013), in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, with this year’s theme being “Redefining Mental Illnesses Through Genetics.” The five-day conference, organized by the International Society of Human Genetics (ISPG), is being attended by nearly 900 of the world’s leading research and clinical experts on psychiatric diseases such as autism, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder. Approximately 300 of these scientists have come from outside the United States. The scientists are discussing the latest developments in their fast-moving field and describing their visions of a brighter future that their work will hopefully provide, in terms of testing, treatments, and possibly even cures. On this opening day, Francis McMahon, M.D., a principal investigator at the National Institute of Mental Health, and president of the ISPG, commented to BioQuick that “the Congress program, coupled with the number and caliber of the attendees, is indicative of the steep curve of discovery in the field. With increases in sample sizes, advances in technology, and all the bright people involved, it is very likely that we will make discoveries in the next decade that will help patients and also help psychiatrists deliver better treatments.” The keynote address for the Congress was delivered by George Church, Ph.D., professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, director of, and universally acknowledged technical wizard who has invented numerous sequencing technologies over the years and been involved in the launches of numerous biotech companies. He is also one of six scientists who proposed the new BRAIN Initiative, which was announced on April 2, 2013 by President Obama, and intends to map the activity of every neuron in the human brain. Dr. Church did not disappoint his audience as he described a number of recent advances that are likely to revolutionize numerous areas of research, including psychiatric genetics. In particular, he discussed the development of “personal organoids on chips” and epi-genome engineering by an CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), which are loci containing multiple short direct repeats that are found in the genomes of approximately 40% of sequenced bacteria and 90% of sequenced archaea. A CRISPR-associated protein, Cas9, together with a so-called guide RNA (gRNA) can be used to locate a specific base pair and make an editing change such as making a repair or a break or effecting an epigenetic change. This next-gen editing technology is immensely powerful, Dr. Church believes, and most in the packed hall seemed to agree with him. Dr. Church’s address was delivered at the end of the day, which was designated “Education Day” and featured a number of lectures on where we are today in the study of a number of different psychiatric diseases. Stephen Faraone, Ph.D, professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at the Upstate Medical Center of the State University of New York, described an overlap or comorbidity between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). The suggestion was that the different disorders might share some common pathways and increased understanding of these pathways might lead to insights into the various disease processes. A questioner at the end of the talk remarked that ADHD was known to meliorate with age and interestingly suggested that the early stress of school might stimulate the expression of the phenotype. In the following session, Dr. McMahon provided an update on the genetics of adult psychiatric diseases. He noted that de novo mutations play a prominent role in brain disorders, and that this may be due to the large size of many brain genes. He noted that the identification of de novo mutations in autism may point to biological pathways related to the underlying neurobiology. He pointed out that treatment with carbamazine is associated with the development of Stevens-Johnson syndrome in those with the HLA-B* 1502 haplotype, causing a 10- to 40-fold increased risk of this serious disease. This risk haplotype is much more common in those of Asian ancestry, he noted. Dr. McMahon ended by emphasizing the tremendous promise offered by induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells as aids to identify risk alleles and cellular phenotypes for psychiatric diseases. Danielle Dick, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), followed with a discussion of the need for an integrated approach to the genetics of substance abuse disorders such as alcoholism. She noted that the genetic influences on alcohol problems may manifest in different ways across different ages. She remarked that children carrying a genetic variant associated with alcoholism in adulthood were twice as likely to have conduct disorder earlier in development. They were only more likely to become alcoholics after they reached the age of 21. She also emphasized that genes are only part of the story; factors such as marital status, religiosity, and parental monitoring may influence the degree to which genetic predispositions are expressed. Dr. Dick described an interesting effort called “SPIT for Science,” that she and collaborators have initiated at VCU. Incoming students are asked to provide saliva and complete surveys periodically across their college years in order to understand how genetic and environmental influences impact substance use outcomes across young adulthood. This approach provides a means for generating the large sample sizes that are typically necessary to obtain significant results in genetic research. Some of the other talks focused on advances in sequencing technologies, clinical genetic testing for neuropsychiatric disorders, and the role of epigenetics in psychiatric diseases. There was also a session where a number of journal editors described what they looked for in submitted papers, and also what they viewed negatively. The World Congress will run through Monday, October 21, 2013. [World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics] [by Michael D. O'Neill]