Bioethics Blogs

The Genetic Epidemiology of Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Disorders: Multiple Levels, Interactions and Causal Loops

What causes psychiatric disorders, such as depression or alcohol abuse disorders? It’s obvious that  background and upbringing often play a significant role, as do life events, such as losing one’s spouse or one’s job. And we also know now that genetic propensities are  important. But how do these different factors inter-relate with one another? For over three decades, these issues have been at the centre of the research of Oxford’s first Loebel Lecturer, Professor Kenneth Kendler.

Professor Kendler is one of the world’s leading, and most highly cited, psychiatric researchers. He uses a range of methods, including family studies, twin and adoption studies, and molecular genetics. He also has a serious interest in the philosophy of psychiatry. His first Loebel Lecture — The Genetic Epidemiology of Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Disorders: Multiple Levels, Interactions and Causal Loops – was presented at the Oxford Martin School on Wednesday 15 October 2014, and is now available on Youtube

This lecture lays out the empirical background to the second lecture, in which Professor Kendler goes more deeply into the philosophical issues raised by his findings. The lecture shows – elegantly, rigorously, and clearly – the complexity of the causal stories behind individual episodes of psychiatric and substance use disorders. Consider gene-environment interactions in major depression. Twin studies show that, if your twin has major depression, you have a latent genetic risk of developing depression yourself, but are also more sensitive to the depressogenic effects of stressful life events.

There is also gene-social interaction in, for example, drug use.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.