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Genes located for severe mental illness

06 July 2007

School of Medicine researchers have found the location of genes which can make women vulnerable to severe psychiatric illness and even suicidal just after childbirth.

The discovery offers new hope for treating a condition which has devastating effects for new mothers, their children and their wider families.

The condition of puerperal (or postpartum) psychosis comes on in some women within a few days of giving birth. It is one of the most severe forms of mental illness and can have serious implications. One of the most tragic consequences is suicide – now the most common cause of maternal death in the UK. Women with bipolar disorder are at particularly high risk with as many as one in three deliveries followed by an episode of postpartum psychosis.

Now a study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and involving a collaboration between the School of Medicine, Birmingham University and Trinity College, Dublin, has helped pinpoint the genetic cause of the disease.

The team examined the DNA of families in which at least one woman had suffered with an episode of postpartum psychosis. The researchers have found the location of the genes involved in the illness and are now homing in on the genes themselves.

The research will help pave the way towards improved identification of women at risk and better treatments for women who suffer episodes following childbirth.

Dr Ian Jones, Senior Lecturer in Perinatal Psychiatry in the Department of Psychological Medicine, who led the research with Professor Nick Craddock, said: "It is vital that women at high risk of severe postpartum illness are aware of the importance of this issue. Although a lot of work still needs to be done, this study will lead to significant benefits for women vulnerable to becoming ill following childbirth.

"Many of the medications used to keep women with bipolar disorder well can be a problem in pregnancy. Finding these genes will allow us to better identify bipolar women at very high risk and will help them and their doctors make the difficult decisions about taking medications through pregnancy."

The team’s findings have just been published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.