HomeScience & TechAncient 'Junk' DNA Found to Influence Major Psychiatric Disorders

Ancient ‘Junk’ DNA Found to Influence Major Psychiatric Disorders

London, June 4, 2024 — In a groundbreaking discovery, researchers from King’s College London have revealed that ancient DNA sequences, previously dismissed as ‘junk’, play a significant role in major psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. This revelation offers new insights that could revolutionize mental health research and treatment.

Ancient DNA’s Hidden Role

Approximately eight percent of human DNA is comprised of Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERVs), remnants of viral infections that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago. These sequences were long considered non-functional ‘junk DNA’. However, the new study published in Nature Communications challenges this notion, presenting evidence that HERVs are crucial to brain function and mental health.

The research team conducted an extensive analysis involving tens of thousands of individuals, both with and without mental health conditions. They also examined autopsy brain samples from 800 people to corroborate their findings.

“Our results suggest that these viral sequences probably play a more important role in the human brain than originally thought,” said Dr. Timothy Powell, co-senior author of the study. “Specific HERV expression profiles are associated with an increased susceptibility to some psychiatric disorders.”

Potential for New Treatments

Dr. Douglas Nixon, another co-senior author, highlighted the transformative potential of these findings. “We think that a better understanding of these ancient viruses, and the known genes implicated in psychiatric disorders, can revolutionize mental health research and lead to novel ways to treat or diagnose these conditions,” he stated.

Despite these promising findings, Dr. Nixon emphasized the need for further research to fully understand the functions of most HERVs.

Understanding the Human Genome

The human genome comprises over six billion individual letters of DNA, spread across 23 pairs of chromosomes. During analysis, scientists chop the DNA into pieces and sequence them to assemble the genetic information accurately.

This study signifies a paradigm shift in understanding the human genome and its impact on mental health. By shedding light on the functional importance of HERVs, it paves the way for future research aimed at developing innovative diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for psychiatric disorders.

As the scientific community delves deeper into the potential of ancient DNA, this discovery underscores the intricate complexity of the human genome and its far-reaching implications for mental health.

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