Genes and Circuitry, Not Just Clinical Observation

Science Update
January 28, 2010

NIMH is launching a long-term project aimed at ultimately improving treatment and prevention by studying classification of mental illness, based on genetics and neuroscience in addition to clinical observation. The Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project is not intended to replace psychiatry’s existing diagnostic system for practitioners and will proceed in an independent direction, said Bruce Cuthbert, Ph.D., Director of the NIMH Division of Adult Translational Research, who is directing the effort. By taking a fresh look – without preconceived categories – the project aims to improve the validity of classification for researchers.  RDoC will create a framework to study basic dimensions of functioning — such as fear or memory. It will encompass multiple levels of analysis, from genes to neural circuits to behaviors — cutting across traditional diagnostic categories.  Strategy 1.4 of the Institute’s Strategic Plan calls for such “new ways of classifying mental disorders based on dimensions of observable behavior and neurobiological measures.” Existing classification schemes define disorders mostly on the basis of presenting symptoms and date back to the early l970s — prior to the neuroscience and genetics advances of the past four decades.  Since then, increasing evidence has emerged of overlap among the traditional diagnostic categories. People often present with more than one diagnosis. Evidence of overlapping genetics and implicated brain circuitry across traditional categories is mounting. As with cancers and infectious illnesses, mental illnesses once lumped together as a single disorder are beginning to be understood as multiple illnesses or subtypes that may stem from different causes and require different treatments.  read more

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