Why we are who we areby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
Mental and behavioral disorders are the most common illnesses among children in the United States. A Sioux Falls hospital is opening a genetic research institute to help diagnose and treat children and their families. Researchers want to be able to identify children at risk for behavioral or abusive disorders and say they'll do that by tracking several hundred children to study their genetic make up and their family lifestyle.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — When it comes to children and mental health, statistics matter. About 15 million children in this country have some kind of diagnosable psychiatric disorder, according to the surgeon general's office. But only two percent of those adolescent children get treatment according to Fred Slunecka, regional president for Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls.
"When these kids don't get treatment, they're likely to have difficulty into adulthood leading to an increased burden on society," he says. "The highest period of risk for psychiatric disorders including substance abuse, criminality and abuse is during childhood years."
Slunecka says often times the parents of these children have a psychiatric disorder of their own. He says that's why Avera McKennan Hospital is opening the Institute for Human Behavioral Genetics. The lab will examine how genetics and environment combine to make us who we are.
There has been a lot of research in genetics and the human genome project has mapped the brain. But according to James Hudziak, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, who will be consulting with the institute, it's time to take that information and see what else it takes to diagnose mental disorders.
"We're never going to have genes that diagnose ADHD, that diagnose depression, that diagnose diabetes," Hudziak says. "We're going to have genes that tell you the risk that child and family have to develop these outcomes. Our genetic component will allow us in the long term to see which relative gene and which specific environmental influences predict and define risk and protective factors."
Institute researchers say they will partner with the Sioux Falls public schools. No details have been announced, but officials hope to find volunteer families through the district.
Hudziak says he hopes the study will help scientists determine a child's liklihood to develop conditions later in life.
"This is the new genetics," Hudziak said in a recent speech. "Everybody in this room knows people who have emerged from the most horrible start to do the most remarkable things. It's what our country is founded on. At the same time we know people who seem like they come from Valhalla and struggled mightily. So we know it's not environment alone, we know it's not genes alone. It's genes and environment."
Hudziak says once that's understood, scientists can educate families and communities on how to change their environment. He says studies he's conducted already show simple changes matter like having kids sleep more than eight hours a night.
"My interventions so far; get them to sleep, have them not smoke, reduce family conflict and chaos, get them on sports teams, teach them music," Hudziak says.
Obesity and substance abuse increase when kids drop sports activities, according to Hudziak. That's most likely to happen when a child turns 13. Girls benefit from team sports even more than boys.
Hudziak says mental illness is nearly always influenced by a child's genetics and environment. He says once the genetic component is understood, environmental factors are the only ones you can change. That means looking at a child's life at home and at school may be a good way to influence the person they become.
- Morning Edition, 06/08/2007, 7:20 a.m.