New research series: finding neurological basis for mental health disorder comorbidity

Research Findings and Resources
New research series: finding neurological basis for mental health disorder comorbidity

We know that half of all people with one mental illness also have one or more additional forms of mental illness over the course of their lives. A recent study at Duke University looks at possible brain structure commonalities across types of mental illness (Romer et al., 2017). In the past, researchers have focused on the neurological basis for individual disorders, but new research has been looking at common mechanisms and risk factors that may cause many types of mental disorder (Romer et al., 2017).

Recent findings have shown that individuals who have symptoms that cross many types of mental illness also show some differences in certain regions of the brain, including structures that help us coordinate complex movements (Romer et al., 2017). New data shows that psychiatric symptoms are highly correlated, so for example, someone who has anxiety is more likely to have depression as well. Researchers have not been able to identify a “general liability factor” that contributes to shared risk for a range of mental disorders (Romer et al., 2017). What we don’t understand still is how this “general liability factor” actually contributes to risk (Romer et al., 2017).

Implications for Mental Health Practitioners

This new research may be more helpful to understand the neurological basis of comorbidity and the relationships between certain disorders, which can hopefully help mental health professionals to approach comorbidity from a more brain-based perspective. Moreover, once we understand the neurological basis underlying comorbidity, we may be better able to develop interventions and hopefully preventative efforts.

Given the high incidence of comorbidity, it is important for mental health practicioners to fully assess patients for existence of comorbid disorders or symptoms. An additional challenge, though, is to identify evidence-based interventions when treating more than one disorder in an individual. Manifestations of more than one disorder can be difficult to tease out, so it is clear that from a scientific perspective and associated evidence-based treatment, we have a lot to learn when it comes to causes and treatment of mental health comorbidity.

References and Resources

Duke University. (2017, April 11). Wiring of the 'little brain' linked to multiple forms of mental illness: Findings implicate brain regions known for helping coordinate complex movements. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 19, 2017 from, A. L., Knodt, A. R., Houts, R., Brigidi, B. D., Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., & Hariri, A. R. (2017). Structural alterations within cerebellar circuitry are associated with general liability for common mental disorders. Molecular Psychiatry, doi:10.1038/mp.2017.57