University: University of Iowa

Researcher: Jacob Michaelson, Ph.D., division director, computational and molecular psychiatry associate professor,
Status:  In progress

Research overview: 
Popular culture aside, is there actually a genetic link between mental illness and creativity? Researchers at the University of Iowa are diving in after a previous study hinted at genetic markers of language ability in children.

“We were conducting a study where we were looking at the genetic contributors to language ability in school-aged children. So we have a big sample of kids that are sort of all over the map in terms of their language ability … and we’re trying to understand how genetics play a role in determining whether or not you’re really good at language, or you’re not so great at language,” Jacob Michaelson said. 

Michaelson’s team found that they were able to identify sets of genes that change an individual’s language ability. Wanting to see how their conclusion works on data someone else had collected, the researchers compared genetic variations they identified to variations related to bipolar disorder. 
“Surprisingly, one of the things that we found is that in bipolar cases, people who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, they had significantly more changes in genes that we predicted to actually be beneficial to language,” Michaelson said. 

Of course, this does not mean that everyone diagnosed with bipolar is a poet, or that writers have an increased risk of bipolar disorder, he added. “It’s just that, on average, if you take a big group, you would see that there is a tendency toward this from a genetic standpoint. … We’re in the mode right now where we’re trying to gather a lot of additional data to either support this idea or to refute it.” 

The method: 
The current study is open to anyone over the age of 18. Researchers originally targeted adults with a family history of bipolar disorder, and then broadly expanded the scope to anyone who attended grade school in Iowa after 1980, regardless of family history. Participants also consent to researchers accessing the results of their standardized testing from schools. 

Participants report any history of mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, depression, autism, eating disorders or schizophrenia in their immediate biological family -- grandparents, parents, siblings and children. Researchers then compare the participants’ self-reported familiarity or affinity with subjects like language, art, music and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), standardized testing records, and family history regarding different types of mental illness. 

“The two main comparisons we’re interested in seeing is whether we can predict how [a person] will respond to their preference, in terms of consumption, but also in creation of these different areas, and if a family history of a specific kind of mental illness makes a difference in how they describe themselves,” Michaelson said. 

Individuals responding so far who don’t report family history of the conditions targeted by researchers tend to report they are more technically inclined, Michaelson said, with a preference for more data-driven activities or endeavors. Conversely, respondents who are willing to report mental illness history in the family have reported more of an interest in artistic subjects. 

So far, more than 2,500 participants have responded, and the survey will remain open “for the foreseeable future,” Michaelson said. Researchers hope to ultimately have about 5,000 survey responses. 

“It’s not going to be the definitive study. I hope this [research] continues, because it’s fascinating and high-impact,” Michaelson said. 

The next logical step in a future study would be collecting saliva samples from volunteers who have consented to be contacted again, to identify gene variations between participants, Michaelson said.

“If our analysis in any way can reduce the stigma, I consider that a good thing,” he said. “Mental illness is a big issue. … Hopefully [the results] can inform treatments that help people without hampering any natural gifts. 

“Some of these people who have contributed amazing things to our culture and our society, they were the only people who could have done it. A person who didn’t have those liabilities probably could not have done it.”