BY: Jessica Baker, PhD
DATE: 6 November 2017
The annual conference for the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics (WCPG) was held October 13th-17th in Orlando, Florida with the theme: Genes in Context. WCPG focuses entirely on the genetic factors influencing psychiatric disorders. This year’s conference featured many contributions from CEED researchers including a talk by Drs. Stephanie Zerwas and Zeynep Yilmaz on the genetic overlap between anorexia nervosa (AN) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a poster presentation by Dr. Jessica Baker on gene expression change in AN, and an additional poster by Dr. Zeynep Yilmaz on the genetic overlap between AN and OCD. We also had a meeting of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium Eating Disorder (PGC-ED) Working Group, which Dr. Cynthia Bulik, CEED’s Founding Director, co-chairs.
In addition to presentations by the CEED team, the conference had several discussions exploring how findings from genetic research can be translated to clinical care. One symposium particularly relevant to the theme was entitled Genetic Counseling for Psychiatric Disorders: Establishing a Framework in the Genomic Era. This symposium addressed how to establish effective cooperation between psychiatrists, clinical geneticists, and genetic counselors and also raised the question of whether the psychiatric field is “ready” for genetic counseling. Genetic counselors advise patients and relatives about the risk of developing an inherited disorder, the consequences and nature of the disorder, and options for managing the disorder. Many think genetic counseling only applies to Mendelian inherited genetic disorders such as Huntington’s disease, but it likely could be useful for psychiatric disorders as well.
The symposium was developed and chaired by Dr. Jehannine Austin, a genetic counselor specializing in psychiatric disorders. One of the most interesting discussion points raised was when psychiatry would be ready for genetic counseling—opposed to if it could be used in psychiatry. The presenters noted that researchers involved in psychiatric genetics often say that psychiatry isn’t ready yet because we have not developed perfect genetic models of risk, and that psychiatry will not be ready until we are at this point. However, the counter-argument is that many medical diseases exist for which “perfect” genetic risk models have not yet been developed. Rather, genetic factors are assessed and taken into consideration when determining risk for a disease (e.g., breast cancer). The presenters argued that indeed, there may be some genetic predictors of psychiatric disorders that can be used to assess risk, such as rare genetic variants for schizophrenia. As the name implies, rare genetic variants are those that occur at a very low frequency in the population and some of these variants have been repeatedly shown to increase risk for schizophrenia. While the presence of these rare variants is not destiny and does not guarantee the development of schizophrenia, this information could be used by genetic counselors to inform patients about their risk for developing and transmitting the condition—especially if there is a family history of the disorder.
I found this symposium particularly appealing because, as a psychiatric genetics researcher, I am often asked how we can use the information gleaned from genetic studies to actually help people with the disorder. This is exactly the goal of genetic counseling in psychiatry! Taken together, the WCPG speakers showcased up-and-coming research in the psychiatric genetics field and how this research can help advance the treatment and prevention of psychiatric disorders.