Oct 31, 2017

Scientists begin to study how mental illness evolved

A researcher examines brain scans at Carnegie Mellon University. Photo: Keith Srakocic / AP

Scientists are beginning to utilize human genome databases to examine the biological and evolutionary roots of mental illnesses, according to Nature.

The big question: How did mental illness arise and develop — and what causes it to persist? Psychiatric disorders can involve hundreds or thousands of genes and mutations, writes Sara Reardon. Vast repositories of human genetic information are now allowing researchers to make inferences about the development and spread of mental illness throughout history.

Some of the most interesting findings so far:

  • Schizophrenia, which often manifests with hallucinations and jumbled speech, is tied to parts of the brain used for speech — so "the ability to speak could have outweighed the small, but unavoidable risk that the genes involved in language could malfunction and result in schizophrenia in a small percentage of the population."
  • People who live in colder European regions are a bit more likely to develop schizophrenia, making it possible that cold-weather adaptability and schizophrenia are linked genetically. "If genes that helped people tolerate cold were located close to variants that promote schizophrenia in the genome, then the latter could have been inadvertently carried along during evolution as a "fellow traveller".
  • Researchers also looked at the regulation of genes in early humans and Neanderthals. For example, early humans may have expressed a gene associated with language ability more than Neanderthals even though both had the gene. The extent of mental illness amongst Neanderthals — if it even existed at all — is unknown, but this difference in gene expression could be vital to understanding its origins.

Go deeper

World coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

Countries where novel coronavirus cases are falling may be hit with a "second peak" if they relax restrictions too soon, World Health Organization emergencies chief Mike Ryan warned during a briefing Monday. "We're still very much in a phase where the disease is actually on the way up," he added.

By the numbers: Brazil on Monday recorded for the first time more deaths from the novel coronavirus in a single day than the United States, Reuters notes. Brazil reported 807 deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, compared to 620 in the U.S. for the same period.

Palantir CEO reflects on work with ICE

Palantir CEO Alex Karp told "Axios on HBO" that there have "absolutely" been moments he wished the company hadn't taken a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

  • "Did I suffer? ... I've had some of my favorite employees leave," Karp told "Axios on HBO."

Michigan governor won't apologize for coronavirus lockdown

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer defended the strictness of her state's coronavirus lockdown in an interview with "Axios on HBO," saying it was necessary — despite the protests that have drawn national attention — because of how quickly the state's cases were rising.

The big picture: Whitmer, who has been a frequent target of President Trump, insisted that she had to act in the face of a lack of federal leadership — and that thousands more people in her state would have died without the lockdown.