19th Jun 2019

Mapping out 'brain change' can help treat mental illness and cut suicide rates

19th Jun 2019

Curated by Brenda Cabrera

3D brain scan of humanDid you know that one in three depressed people also suffers from substance abuse? This condition is called ‘dual diagnosis’ and researchers have recently found that it is associated with certain molecular alterations in the brain.

In 10 seconds? Scientists have made a huge leap forward in understanding the links between mental illness, substance abuse and suicide. Comparing the molecular profile of brains could be a game-changer for dual diagnosis sufferers who have an elevated suicide risk. (Read the science)

Wait, tell me more about dual diagnosis! Dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders is the condition of suffering from a mental illness and a substance abuse problem at the same time. Common examples are depression and alcoholism or schizophrenia and cannabis abuse. People who have milder mental disorders alongside a drug dependency, such as panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder and dependence on opioids also fall into this group. (Learn more)

And it changes peoples' brains? Yes. The researchers found that patients with dual diagnosis have alterations in the expression of genes involved in the development of new neurons and communication between neurons. In addition, they found that the workflows of molecules related to neuronal communication were disrupted in these patients. (Read the main paper)

How did they find the genetic alterations? They analysed gene expression - that is the process by which the information in our DNA is converted into instructions to make proteins or other molecules - in the prefrontal cortex of patients by using microarrays. These devices (which are also known as DNA chips or biochips) allowed them to measure the expression levels of thousands of genes simultaneously. (Watch a short video on DNA microarrays)

And why is this a significant breakthrough? Well, this is the first study evaluating the gene expression profile in brain tissue of dual diagnosis patients. The genetic alterations identified in this study could be part of the mechanisms causing all the medical complications observed in patients and knowing the biochemical processes could help scientists to find new treatments to help patients overcome the dual disorder. (Read more)

Alright, and when will the new treatment be here? First things first! Although this might be a success for science, future research with larger samples and other populations is needed to confirm the findings. Moreover, the next studies should evaluate different biological traits and epigenetic factors of dual diagnosis, for example, by applying neuroimaging. By doing so, the researchers are hoping that they will be able to design specific measures for preventing medical complications in those patients. (Read more)

Depression and substance abuse can be a major cause of suicide

Patients with dual diagnosis are more likely to have more medical complications and elevated mortality compared to patients with only one disorder.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that about 90 percent of the people who take their own lives in the US are struggling with depression, a substance abuse disorder, or a combination of these issues.

And according to the Foundations Recovery Network (FRN), nearly 8.9 million Americans are affected by co-occurring mental health conditions and substance use disorders each year but only 7.4% of those receive appropriate treatment.

If you or a loved one may need help, you can contact the FRN or have a look at this collection of useful websites provided by the National Consortium of Consultant Nurses in Dual Diagnosis & Substance Use.

(Psst, Brenda distilled 11 research papers to save you 733.0 min)

Curated by

Brenda Cabrera

PhD student at the National Institute of Genomic Medicine, Mexico City, Mexico, focusing on the molecular basis of psychiatric disorders.

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