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Mental Disorders in Relatives Could Shape Our Interests and Aptitudes

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If you’re artistic or have a love of science, you may be able to thank a relative with a mental disorder — new research indicates there’s a link between family psychiatric history and our personal interests.

More than 1,000 Princeton University freshmen were recently surveyed and asked what major they’d choose based on their intellectual interests, and then asked if their parents, siblings or grandparents had a history of mood disorders (like depression or bipolar disorder), substance abuse or autism-spectrum disorders. All of these disorders have a moderate-to-strong genetic component.

The results, published Jan. 26 in the journal PLoS ONE, revealed that students who planned to major in the humanities or social sciences were twice as likely as other students to report a family member who suffered from a mood disorder or had a substance abuse problem. Science and technology majors, on the other hand, were three times as likely as other freshmen to say they had a sibling on the autism spectrum.

In a statement, study researcher Sam Wang, a professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton, said the new data mirrors previous work showing our interests are at least partially heritable. Various studies over the past few decades have found people who have relatives with mood or behavior disorders have a higher-than-average representation in careers related to writing and the humanities, while conditions related to autism exhibit a similar correlation with scientific and technical careers.

One need look no further than pop culture and history to see this effect in action. Poets such as Sylvia Plath are known for their struggles with depression, and Aristotle once allegedly said that people “eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.” In addition, ties between autism and technology abound in Silicon Valley, where techie personalities and the autistic disorder Asperger’s are reportedly common.

Environmental influences, such as the experience of growing up with a mentally ill family member, may also play a role. But Wang said the correlations suggest a common genetic path between certain interests and certain mental disorders.

“Everyone has specific individual interests that result from experiences in life, but these interests arise from a genetic starting point,” Wang said. “This doesn’t mean that our genes determine our fate. It just means that our genes launch us down a path in life, leading most people to pursue specific interests and, in extreme cases, leading others toward psychiatric disorders.”

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