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Gene Disposes Ashkenazis to Psychosis

Ashenazi GenesA gene that plays a major role in positioning Ashkenazi Jewish families for schizophrenia has been isolated.

It’s modest news in the overall scheme of things, but like the discovery of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations for breast cancer for Ashkenazi Jews, it shows the usefulness of focusing genetic studies in a specific ethnic group.

Ashkenazi JewsMutations in the gene NDST3 gene are found with appreciable frequency in Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews suffering from psychosis, but that doesn’t mean they have any greater chance of mental disturbance–only that, among those diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder, a specific mutation in this single gene is found in significantly greater numbers.

Todd Lencz, associate investigator at the Zucker Hillside Hospital Department of Psychiatry Research and Feinstein Institute, which led the study, said the Ashkenazi Jewish population represents a unique opportunity for study because of its short (less than 1,000-year) history and limited population.

Over 25,000 Ashkenazi Jews submitted DNA samples for testing, providing a uniform genetic background. With the mingling of peoples on our tiny planet, however, it’s becoming much more difficult to conduct studies of this nature.

Jews and Irish Suffered Unthinkably

For now, certain communities are better than others for looking at long DNA strands. The Roscommon County Studies, which were the platform for the wider Irish High Density Schizophrenia Studies, was one such group.

In 2002 it led to the discovery of abnormalities on the chromosome of the dysbindin gene in a very small part of the world where my people originate.

While genetic studies rarely impute the failure of the gene to any one particular cause, in the case of the Jews and the Irish, obviously, vast multitudes endured hardships that the rest of us can hardly get ahold of.

We all know what happened with the Holocaust, Shoah, at the hands of the Nazi government, and let’s never forget.

With the Irish, a famine-era epidemic has been swept into the dustbins of history (as chronicled in my book Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family’s Schizophrenia, a free Kindle or PDF version of which is available upon request at [email protected]).

Ireland’s century-strong famine economy, culminating in the so-called Great Irish Famine, An Gortar Mor, our “organic holocaust,” may be epigenetically implicated in my own family’s schizophrenia.

Psychosis, at least symptomatically, has already been found in double numbers in famine populations.  We Irish lost a million.  A million died in a small island nation no larger in size than the state of Maine.

To put the body count in perspective, that’s twice what we’d soon lose ourselves in the whole the American Civil War–and many from the North were Irish immigrants, drawn from the million more that fled famine Ireland for their bloody lives.

So there was great, great trauma here.  Could it be that hereditary insanity is one of the wages of man’s inhumanity to man?

Whatever our lineage, the biological conversation that takes place between gene expression and suffering is another day’s work, but the educated guess of a once flummoxed brother is that it wasn’t just predestination that my grandmother, my uncle and my two sisters (half my sibs) would go rapidly mad in the prime of life.

In other words, it was probably avoidable–but for all the cruelties of history.

While science is far from being able to tell us how genes express mental illness–and far, therefore, from recovering anyone’s lost sanity–these studies are more than small bread crumbs. They are slowly building a base of facts to probe the relationship between the genetics of the disorder and the symptoms that characterize it.

This takes time, of course, and great patience. Schizophrenia is known to be non-Mendalian, meaning no single gene is necessary or sufficient to cause the disorder. It’s believed that hundreds of genes may be implicated, so it’s quite the Rubik’s Cube.

That may be disappointing news, but even here knowledge means something to the mere layman like me.  The involvement of hundreds of genes, for instance, might explain why you don’t necessarily need a family history for schizophrenia to appear out of nowhere.

It runs in families, of course, and in mine it sprints, but it can also jump into a gene pool with the spontaneous force of a fully clothed teenager. You never see the canonball coming.

That may explain why all families are at risk. Because one in 100 individuals suffer from schizophrenia–and another one in a hundred from bipolar–in a few generations the odds of somebody going insane would overwhelm the Cleavers.

Therefore, we all should care.  Mental wellness is absolutely in every family’s self interest.

Similar Symptoms From Different Genetic Errors

More answers are in the offing, thanks to an international collaboration known as the Psychiatric Genome Consortium (PGC) that’s putting all these heads together.

Patrick Sullivan, a professor of genetics and psychiatry and director of the Psychiatric Genomics Department at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, recently told Psychiatric News that the geneome-wide association studies for schizophrenia are re-invigorating the field of psychiatric genetics itself.

They say the gene code for manic depressive disorder may be harder to crack than the codes for schizophrenia, surprisingly. Because the mood disorders are less heritable than schizophrenia, larger sample sizes will be needed.

Another major discovery is that mutations seen in only one person in a sample population may contribute to one out of 20 cases of schizophrenia. This, in turn, raises the question of whether these individual have the same disorder or different diseases that present with common symptoms.

“A constellation of similar symptoms can come from lots of different genetic and biological errors,” said Jonathan Sebat, an associate professor of psychiatry and the chief of the Center for Molecular Genomics of Neuropsychiatric Diseases at the University of California, San Diego. “Until we understand the underlying causes of mental disorders, we cannot correctly reclassify them.”

Gene Disposes Ashkenazis to Psychosis

Patrick Tracey

PEN winning author of Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia (Random House/Bantam Dell). London correspondent in early 2000s, Washington City Paper contributing writer throughout 1990s. More recently writing for Salon and now blogging here.

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APA Reference
Tracey, P. (2013). Gene Disposes Ashkenazis to Psychosis. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Dec 2013
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