Genes, Mental Illness and Bad Reporting

20 01 2009

This story has been all over the news today. It’s news of a new study published in medical journal, The Lancet, that suggests a common genetic cause for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. However, many outlets reporting the story go one step further and claim that schizophrenia and bipolar could ultimately be the same disorder.

Unless I’m mistaken, that’s just not right. Here’s the findings from the original article in The Lancet:

Similar to molecular genetic studies, we showed evidence that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder partly share a common genetic cause. These results challenge the current nosological dichotomy between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and are consistent with a reappraisal of these disorders as distinct diagnostic entities.

This says that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may end up being two sides of the same coin (or disorder) but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the same disorder. It just says, as diagnostic entities, they might not be entirely distinct. That’s a big difference.

Only one outlet I read suggested any kind of nuance and went into any kind of detail: good ol’ Scientific American.

According to Lichtenstein [lead author of the study], this data illustrates the extent to which these two disorders are genetically related. He speculates that hundreds if not thousands of genes are at the root of each disorder, about half of which may overlap.  But, as other researchers have pointed out, the vast majority of these genes are yet to be found.

What troubles me is the perpetuation of a gross miscomprehension of what genes are by the media. Every story that comes out saying ‘gene for X discovered’ is only entrenching a false impression of genetics: that one gene affects this, another gene affects that.

This century is sure to see many more stories about the genes that underly our behaviour, personality, health and even morality – and it’s crucial that journalists (and I include myself here) gain a better understanding of how to communicate these immensely significant studies correctly. To do otherwise could end up being catastrophic.

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One response

20 01 2009
ggw_bach

still, there is an interface between genes and environment that is not emphasised nearly enough. We are malleable creatures, not victims of a dna loop. :-)

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