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Approved Research

Parental and early-life factors in neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopment disorders - genetic and non-genetic mechanisms

Principal Investigator: Dr Magdalena Janecka
Approved Research ID: 75404
Approval date: June 13th 2022

Lay summary

Most mental health disorders are caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. For example, while schizophrenia can run in families - suggesting the role of genetics, people exposed to certain environments - for example, those who use cannabis - are also more likely to develop this disease.

While research studies have identified many environmental exposures linked with higher rates of certain psychiatric disorders, it remains challenging to establish whether these factors in fact cause - at least in part - any one disease. For example, although smoking cannabis has been linked to schizophrenia risk, it remains possible that people who use cannabis are also more to live in a big city, and it is the pollution - not cannabis - that really matters in the context of schizophrenia. While being able to distinguish between the effects of cannabis and pollution is critical for designing the strategies to reduce schizophrenia rates, most studies do not collect sufficient data to investigate all of such factors.

Additionally, it was shown that cannabis smoking may be influenced by one's genetic predisposition. As some genes may predispose people to two different traits/disorders, it is possible that the genetic make-up that predisposes someone to smoke cannabis, is similar to the one that predisposes someone to schizophrenia (referred to as "shared genetic predisposition"). In such scenarios, any interventions to reduce cannabis smoking would have no impact on how many people suffer from schizophrenia, as the genetic predisposition remains unchanged.

The data collected as part of the UKBB study will allow us to study some of such known environmental risk factors for psychiatric disorders, and establish if there exists any evidence that it is in fact some other, correlated factors, or the shared genetic predisposition, that causes the given disorder. The set of environmental factors we will focus on includes mostly the events that happen early in life, including maternal exposures in pregnancy, and complications of birth, as numerous studies have demonstrated that many brain-related disorder likely start early in life.

We aim to complete this project over 2-3 years, and communicate our findings to other scientists and the community throughout this time. We hope that upon the completion of this project, we will be able to identify factors in our environment that warrant consideration when designing strategies to reduce the burden of mental health, and distinguish them from those that are correlated with these causes.