Genetics in Mental Health Conference

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IDRAAC, in collaboration with the St Georges Hospital University Medical Center, the University of Balamand and the Lebanese Psychiatric Society, organized a conference on Genetics in Mental Health on Tuesday, January 29, 2019 from 5:30 to 8:00 PM at the Batlouni Auditorium (facing the St Georges Hospital University Medical Center-Ashrafieh) with Professor Thomas Schulze, Director of the Institute of Psychiatric Phenomics and Genomics University Hospital, LMU Munich, Germany, President of the International Society of Psychiatric Genetics (ISPG) and Secretary for Scientific Sections, World Psychiatric Association (WPA).

The conference was attended by more than 200 attendees from different backgrounds and specialties and included presentations from Professor Schulze as well as Professor Rose-Mary Boustany (American University of Beirut Medical Center, Lebanon), Professor Michael Pluess (Queen Mary University, London- UK) and Professor Elie Karam (IDRAAC, St Georges Hospital University Medical Center, University of Balamand, Lebanon) regarding their research and contributions in the field of genetics in mental health. Professor Sami Richa (St Joseph Univeristy, Hotel Dieu de France, Lebanon), President of the Lebanese Psychiatric Society, moderated the discussion.

In addition, prior to the conference, a roundtable on Biobanking was organized with professionals working on genetic research in Lebanon from different universities where they discussed the latest advances in genetics in Lebanon and the ethical considerations of research in this area.


Professor Schulze introduced the methodology of complex genetics and gave an update on the scientific developments in psychiatric genetics confirming that “Psychiatric genetics has made tremendous progress over the last two decades”. “Large-scale collaborative efforts and major developments in molecular biological technologies, in particular genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have helped identify well over a hundred vulnerability genes for schizophrenia”. He added that “With an ever increasing sample size for GWAS in bipolar disorder or major depression totaling several tens of thousands of patients and control individuals, the number of identified risk genes for these disorders is expected to rise as well.” He also explained how “biobanking initiatives are paving the way for powerful in-depth biological studies going well beyond genetics and applying multi-omic approaches”. 
He ended by affirming that “advances in the exciting and ever evolving field of genetics in mental health are critically dependent on a truly collaborative spirit, exemplified by “friendly data sharing””. 
Professor Rose-Mary Boustany, Professor of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine/Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Director of the AUBMC Special Kids Clinic and Neurogenetics Program, and Division Chief of Pediatric Neurology gave a presentation on Autism in Lebanon. She explained that “Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) manifest poor verbal/social communication/restricted interests/ sensory sensitivities”. “Studies have shown that 90% of ASD children are in school, 1% reach high school, 50% graduate and 12% of ASD adults work.” Results from her studies show that ASD prevalence for Lebanon is 1:68 with slight increase in males (4M:1F in the West). Genetic analysis showed copy number variations and whole exome sequencing WES yielded novel genes.  In addition, she added that “Prenatal and perinatal factors, male gender, late order birth, consanguinity and psychiatric family history have been shown to increase the risk for ASD”.  She concluded that “early intervention improves outcomes and white matter microstructure (speech/ABA/occupational/psychomotor therapies) when brain and neuronal synapses are at their most functionally plastic”.   
Professor Michael Pluess, Professor in Developmental Psychology at Queen Mary University, London- UK, gave an overview of the BIOPATH study (Biological Pathways of Risk and Resilience in Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon) which “investigates the biological underpinnings of individual differences in refugee children’s response to acute war-related trauma exposure. Applying a modern multilevel perspective, the study explores the intricate interplay between psychosocial, neuroendocrine, epigenetic, and genetic factors in the prediction of risk and resilience related to the experience of war in 1,600 Syrian refugee children based in Lebanon across two waves of data collection.”
This study is based on an important finding where “although it is well established that children exposed to war are at increased risk for the development of mental health problems, some children show remarkable psychological resilience.” 
Professor Elie Karam, President of IDRAAC, Head of the World Psychiatric Association's Epidemiology Section and Professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology St Georges Hospital University Medical Center and University of Balamand, introduced a “school-based resilience-building intervention by IDRAAC on Lebanese and Syrian students attending 31 public schools in Lebanon using the teachers as agents of change.“ 
This study also has a genetic component where saliva samples were collected from 989 students and will be analyzed in an effort to “understand the role of the genetic factors in predisposing children to having mental disorders and to responding to interventions”. “Results of the study so far show a clear effect of the intervention in reducing anxiety, depression, PTSD, ADHD, aggression and impulsivity. “ “The interplay between environmental sensitivity, personal competence, childhood adversities, positive home experience, and the intervention will also being explored”.  
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