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Genetic link to creativity and mental illness reported

15 June 2015

By Ceri Durham

Appeared in BioNews 806

Researchers say they have identified a genetic link between 'creativity' and the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The study found that people with certain gene variants linked to the psychiatric disorders are more likely to be in creative professions or belong to a creative society, suggesting that the two could share some genetic overlap.

'Creative people may have a genetic predisposition towards thinking differently,' claims Dr Robert Power, the lead author of the study published last week in Nature Neuroscience. 'This, when combined with other harmful biological or environmental factors, could lead to mental illness.'

The researchers used medical and genetic information from more than 86,000 people from Iceland to identify gene variants associated with at least a one-third increase in the risk of bipolar disorder and a two-fold increase in the risk of schizophrenia.

They found that these variants were 17 percent more common among people belonging to one of the national societies for artists, writers, dancers, musicians or actors.

A review of 35,000 people in Sweden and the Netherlands also found that people identified as creative, either by their profession or according to questionnaire results, were 25 percent more likely to carry the variants.

Critics of the research, however, have questioned the importance of the findings. In particular, the genetic variants in question only accounted for around 0.25 percent of the variation in people's creativity.

Dr David Cutler, Assistant Professor at Emory University School of Medicine, explains, 'If the distance between me, the least artistic person you are going to meet, and an actual artist is one mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of that distance. Most of the distance between the artist and me is therefore due to other genetic variants and/or environmental factors.'

Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Albert Rothenberg of Harvard University agrees. Dismissing the findings, he notes: 'Creative people are generally not mentally ill.' He also questions the study's definition of 'creativity', arguing that 'belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature does not prove a person is creative'.

Dr Kari Steffanson, CEO of deCODE, which supplied genetic data to the study, concedes that the genetic link is far from strong. He nevertheless considers any link to be important. He says the findings suggest that while creativity 'is very important for our society... it comes at a risk to the individual, and one percent of the population pays the price.'

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