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Genetics of Complex Traits in Psychiatry

By Joel Gelernter
Biological Psychiatry
January 2015

Virtually all psychiatric traits are genetically complex. This article discusses the genetics of complex traits in psychiatry. The complexity is accounted for by numerous factors, including multiple risk alleles, epistasis, and epigenetic effects such as methylation. Risk alleles can individually be common or rare, and can include, for example, single nucleotide polymorphisms and copy number variants that are transmitted or are new mutations, and other kinds of variation. Many different kinds of variation can be important for trait risk, either together in various proportions or as different factors in different subjects. Until more recently, approaches to complex traits were limited, and consequently only a few variants, usually of individually minor effect, were identified. At the present time, a much richer armamentarium exists that includes the routine application of genome-wide association studies and next-generation high-throughput sequencing and the combination of this information with other biologically relevant information, such as expression data. We have also seen the emergence of large meta-analysis and mega-analysis consortia. These developments are extremely important for psychiatric genetics, have advanced the field substantially, and promise formidable gains in the years to come as they are applied more widely.

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