Music and mental illness: it’s complicated

3 minute read

This duet is probably due to underlying common genetic influences rather than any causal relationship.

There’s a paradoxical relationship between mental health and music: does the pairing make you think of tortured Romantic composers or of music’s soul-soothing therapeutic qualities?

A Swedish team, in a study published in Nature, set out to map the associations between the two, both positive and negative.

Using a sample of more than 5600 twins (part of an existing twin study), they derived polygenic scores for mental health problems previously associated with musicianship and creativity – i.e. major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, neuroticism, sensitivity to environmental stress, and depressive symptoms. They took data on mental illness both diagnosed and self-reported, and on music engagement, amount of music practice and music achievement.

For control purposes they also measured sport engagement and other artistic and scientific achievements.

They found people engaged in music did not have more diagnoses, but did have more self-reported mental health problems.

Higher genetic risks for major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder were associated with playing music and with more hours of practice. And a genetic predisposition for any musicality, they write, regardless of actual playing, made a depression diagnosis more likely.

But don’t quit your local choir or drop the piano lessons: the mechanism does not seem to be causal, but rather a case of “horizontal pleiotropy” – that is, the same genes influencing both musicality and mental health problems. Vertical pleiotropy would be if the symptoms of mental illness propelled individuals to seek out music to alleviate them. These genetic associations seem to hold regardless of actual symptoms or actual music practice.

They also found a positive association between major depressive disorder and artistic achievement, but this was nearly entirely accounted for by writing. As the authors say: “This is not surprising as historically writers are known to be particularly prone to psychiatric problems, even among artistic groups.” Next on The Back Page: tortured poets!

Scientific achievement and sporting engagement were negatively associated with mental health problems, at least phenotypically, though there was a slightly higher genetic risk of bipolar.

One limitation of this technique, among several the authors point out, is that GWASs are quite broad brush in terms of the genetic polymorphisms they include, capturing “only a fraction of the genetic variation underlying behavioral traits”.

Finally, they say, more research is needed “to further disentangle the music-mental health relationship, taking into account that musicians may have a higher genetic risk for depression and bipolar disorder in the first place and that underlying shared genetic factors may confound findings”.

If music drives you to madness or vice versa, tell

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