Large Study on Mental Health Genetics Launched by Estonian Biobank

Lili Milani and Kelli Lehto (Credit: University of Tartu)

Nearly every second individual is affected by a mental health problem in their lifetime, but the exact mechanisms causing these problems remain unclear. To bring more clarity to the field of mental health, the Estonian Biobank at the University of Tartu has launched a large study, which is unique in the world. The results of this study will contribute towards the development of novel personalised medicine approaches in mental health.

What makes the study special is that the sample includes 200,000 Estonian biobank participants, that is nearly 20% of the adult population of Estonia, and data are collected while strict coronavirus restrictions are in place. The participants are invited to complete a comprehensive online questionnaire on their current and lifetime mental health issues. The collected data will then be analysed together with existing genetic data on the Estonian Biobank participants to find links between the various symptoms and the genetic profile of each individual.

“In addition, we ask the participants if they have ever been prescribed any medication for mental health problems, and what the outcome of the treatment was – for example, whether the prescribed antidepressant was effective, or what side effects it caused. The more we learn about the role of human genes in the treatment outcome, the better we will be able to guide the treatment of psychiatric disorders in the near future,” said one of the principal investigators of the study Lili Milani, Professor of Pharmacogenomics at the University of Tartu.

The second lead researcher of the study, Associate Professor of Neuropsychiatric Genetics at the University of Tartu, Kelli Lehto said that the health care systems worldwide are moving towards finding a personalised disease prevention or treatment plan for every individual.

“This study will help to identify the unknown links between mental health issues and genes, allowing to develop personalised medicine solutions in the field of mental health – for example, in the future, genetic data may help specialists find the right diagnosis already in the early stage of the disorder and thus, also the best treatment approach,” said Lehto.

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According to clinical psychologist Anna-Kaisa Oidermaa, nearly half of people experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. Depression, anxiety, concentration difficulties and restless sleep are among the most common mental health problems faced by many people. “The coronavirus crisis has brought mental health and wellbeing issues into the spotlight. Situations of uncertainty, which involve the need to quickly adapt to changes, are a major challenge to the mental health of many people,” Oidermaa admitted.

In the future, mental health professionals will also benefit from the results of the genetic study. “New information about the relationship between genes, the environment and mental health give an opportunity for better prevention, more accurate diagnosis and more effective treatment options, which are based on each person’s individual predispositions and experiences,” Milani explained.