A multinational study of data from 130,000 people shows that inherited risk factors for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder also predict participation in the arts and creative professions

REYKJAVIK, Iceland, 8 June 2015 – A study led by scientists at deCODE genetics and published today demonstrates at population scale that variations in the sequence of the genome that increase risk of mental illness characterized by psychosis are also predictors of creativity.

The paper, published today in the online edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience, uses a powerful genome analysis system to attempt to answer a very old question: does the unconventional processing of thoughts and emotions, which if extreme enough causes and defines schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, also underpin the different ways of thinking about and representing experience that is fundamental to creative endeavors?

Previous research at deCODE demonstrated that unaffected carriers of genetic risk factors for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often share cognitive abnormalities seen in patients. To examine this phenomenon in relation to creativity, the deCODE team first analyzed genomic and medical data from 86,000 Icelanders and validated a set of variations in the sequence of the genome that more than double the average risk of schizophrenia and increase risk of bipolar disorder by more than a third. They then looked at these variants in the genomes of people engaged in creative endeavors – more than 1,000 members of the national societies of visual artists, actors, dancers, musicians and writers in Iceland. Members of these organizations were, they found, 17% more likely than non-members to carry these variants.

This finding was replicated using data from four longitudinal studies in the Netherlands and Sweden, comprising some 35,000 people. Of these, individuals in artistic occupations matching the Icelandic ones, and high creativity defined through questionnaires on activity in visual art, music, dance writing and theater, were nearly 25% more likely to carry these variants than those in other professions.
“We are here using the tools of modern genetics to take a systematic look at a fundamental aspect of how the brain works. The results of this study should not have come as a surprise because to be creative you have to think differently from the crowd and we had previously shown that carriers of genetic factors that predispose to schizophrenia do so” said Kari Stefansson, founder and CEO of deCODE and lead author in the study. “

Based in Reykjavik, Iceland, deCODE is a global leader in analyzing and understanding the human genome. Using its unique expertise and population resources, deCODE has discovered genetic risk factors for dozens of common diseases. The purpose of understanding the genetics of disease is to use that information to create new means of diagnosing, treating and preventing disease. deCODE is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Amgen.