Alumni Report: Advancing genetic analysis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in Africa

Anne Stevenson, Health Policy, Planning, and Financing (HPPF) alumna (2007) and Program Director of the Neuropsychiatric Genetics of African Populations-Psychosis project, talks about the study that she is helping lead at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health & Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Brain disorders, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, lead to a lot of death and disability around the world. There is still much we do not know about what causes them. Genetics research is one way to find biological causes to these mental health conditions, by looking at genes and proteins. Recently, scientists have made advances in understanding the genes involved in psychiatric disorders, but their findings are from studies of people of European descent. African populations have not been well studied in genetics research. Leaving out Africans from research has big implications – it means that we are likely missing key genetic discoveries.  It is also possible that future drug therapies developed from people of European descent may not work as well for Africans.  Our study hopes to address some of this need.

The Neuropsychiatric Genetics of African Populations-Psychosis study (NeuroGAP-Psychosis) is a four-year project that aims to advance genetic analysis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa by collecting phenotypic information and DNA from 35,000+ participants. NeuroGAP-Psychosis is part of an ambitious initiative at the Broad Institute to expand large-scale neuropsychiatric genetics around the world.

In my role, I work across all aspects of the study, whether that means helping write the protocol, training the teams in Africa, or setting up contracts. I may not do every component of the study – I work with great people in Boston and in country – but I need to be aware of what is going on at each stage.

This project has not been without its challenges. Doing any kind of research takes time. When you then add multiple countries and multiple collection sites within countries, it takes even longer. We had to go through 12 different ethics committees to get our study approved and it took more than two and a half years of work to recruit our first participant.

At the current stage of the project, we expect recruitment to last for the next four years, so we have a lot of time ahead of us. After that period, depending on funding, I would like to be able to add a site in the West Africa to get additional geographic (and genetic) diversity across the continent.

Outside of my project, colleagues of mine and other researchers are conducting similar studies with partners in China, Japan, Finland, and Mexico.  Five years from now, I hope these combined efforts can help crack what we know about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

You can follow Anne and the NeuroGAP-Psychosis project on Twitter @annehstevenson. For more information about NeuroGAP-Psychosis, visit the Broad Institute website or read this article from the Wall Street Journal.

Images courtesy of Anne Stevenson.


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