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School & Program Updates

School & Program Updates

Michigan, USC, & Broad Institute Receive $16 Million Grant to Study Genetics of Mental Health Disorders

Researchers at University of Michigan SPH and Medical School and collaborators at two other institutions will undertake the largest whole genome sequencing study funded to date, as they seek to better understand bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.


[Left to right: Dr. Michael Boehnke, Dr. Laura Scott, Dr. Goncalo Abecasis, Dr. Hyun Min Kang]

U-M, the University of Southern California, and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT will work together to deeply sequence the genomes of 10,000 people of European, Hispanic, and African-American origin. They received three separate four-year awards totaling $16 million from the National Institute of Mental Health.

The U-M led team includes four researchers from SPH, one from the Medical School and two from the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology.

“We hope to gain a better understanding of these diseases that directly affect one percent of the population but impact countless friends and relatives,” said principal investigator Dr. Michael Boehnke, the Richard G. Cornell Distinguished University Professor of Biostatistics and director of the Center for Statistical Genetics in the department of biostatistics at SPH.

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes mood shifts, and dramatic ups and downs in energy and activity level. Those with it often struggle with daily activities. Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that may cause those afflicted to hear voices and have irrational fears that people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting against them.

These disorders are among the leading causes of disability worldwide due to their early onset and chronic course. There is clinical and genetic evidence of overlap of these illnesses, the researchers say, emphasizing the importance of a combined genetic analysis.

Detailed knowledge of genetic structure will provide the basis for novel interventions, the researchers say.

Both conditions run in families and are thought to result from interactions between biological and environmental factors. Previous research has established the importance of genetics, and researchers say this approach will examine details of genetic sequences in an unprecedented number of individuals.

“From what we learn, we hope we can identify better targets for drug development or better targets for the drugs we now have,” said Dr. Boehnke. “We also could imagine improving our ability to predict who might get these diseases.”

In addition to Dr. Boehnke, U-M SPH researchers include Dr. Laura Scott, SPH research associate professor, Dr. Goncalo Abecasis, chair of the SPH department of biostatistics and Felix E. Moore Collegiate Professor of Biostatistics, and Dr. Hyun Min Kang, assistant professor in SPH.

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