Creativity, Schizophrenia Linked by a Gene
> 7/21/2009 8:57:33 PM

The "terminally tortured artist" cliche, long a staple of stage and screen, may have some basis in scientific reality.

A Hungarian research team examined a specific and surprisingly common genetic variation that has been linked to higher rates of schizophrenia. The gene, neuregulin 1, plays a supporting role in brain development. When present on its own, the gene may be entirely benign. But individuals who carry two copies of this mutation in their genetic code stand a higher risk of developing schizophrenia.

They're also more likely to be involved in the liberal-and-fine arts fields. In order to determine the relationship between these variables, researchers invited "creative, accomplished" volunteers to participate in an advertised experiment. They gave these volunteers creative thinking tests before examining their DNA samples in an attempt to identify statistical trends.

Upon examining the results, researchers noted that individuals who carried the gene scored higher, on average, than their peers, implying that their thought processes were more creative in nature. Those who carried two copies scored highest, with the difference between the three groups amounting to approximately 8% of their overall scores.

Interestingly, while the subjects who carried two copies of the gene were more likely to be "creative", they were no more likely to display the most common symptoms of schizophrenia: paranoia, social phobias, physical tics etc. It would seem that the gene does not affect artistic temperament and mental health in the same way.

Researchers note that the gene in question affects the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain central to the processes of practicing personal restraint and cautious behavior. Their theory reads that the subsequent outpouring of emotion and intellectual curiosity may manifest itself as either an untamed creative impulse, a severe and confusing mental illness or some combination of the two.

They also suspect that the "genius" benefits of this rogue gene may explain its resilience in spite of the fact that it offers a clear evolutionary disadvantage to those who carry it. At any rate, it doesn't look to disappear anytime soon: 50% of Europeans carry one copy of the gene and 12% carry two copies. The fact that schizophrenia affects far less than 12% of the population implies that this gene is only one of many factors related to schizophrenia - and that it also happens to be a major player in the creative process.

This study isn't the first to examine the supposed link between schizophrenia and artsy dispositions. But it does seem to support the belief that at least one of the genes that influences schizophrenia also tends to allow for a more creatively-minded individual. And so the "mad genius" archetype lives to see another day.


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