The molecular biologist believes that a predisposition to schizophrenia is 100% genetic. Certain environmental factors, like smoking marijuana, can trigger the mental disorder.
Question: What is the state of mental illness research?James Watson: In the case of the brain, you know, you have disorganized thinking. But we don't know what thinking is. So, you can't look at... and say it's not thinking right. So we didn't come to, you know, a real chance to fight back against cancer until we do the basic, say laws in which DNA operated. And then finding how chromosomes divide, et cetera, and all those details.
Once we had that, then we could ask what... I guess why does the cancer cell behave differently? The case of the brain is clearly so complicated that in reality, about the only people that think about the brain are outsiders who are not capable of understanding it. That is the people who are sort of bright enough, or you know, trained enough know how inherently complex it is. And Francis Crick spent 20 years trying to think about it. In the end, nothing came out of it. So, you know, in a perverse way, I think the only people that really know should think about how the brain operates are those people who deal with schizophrenia or bipolar disease where you know the brain just doesn't work. So because for the most part the people who study it, who only got into the field because they have a child or they have a sister or a brother or, you know, you're in it because you want to cure someone.
So we can take away delusions from people with schizophrenia, but they're very cognitively impaired and we don't know how to repair the cognition defects. And that's why the become homeless if there's no one taking care of them; they just really can't look after themselves. So the thought that you can teach the homeless to take care of themselves. No, we have to take care of them. Question: You have a personal interest in this?James Watson: Yes. I have a son, who is a... not an ordinary form of schizophrenia, but clearly, cannot take care of himself. And the great fear of then, of all parents is, when the parents die, who takes care of your child? And the answer is: they become homeless. You know, unless there is sufficient money in the family or something, but, given the structure of society today... The mentally ill are treated very cruelly. We sort of deny their existence. Congress has virtually no interest in them. A great interest in cancer, but no interest... no one wants to hold a hearing on it. Question: Do you think mental disorders like schizophrenia are strongly genetic?James Watson: I would say, predisposition 100%. Whether it progresses to full-blown schizophrenia, probably some environmental influences, such as... It's clear that if you're pre-disposed to schizophrenia, smoking marijuana will tip you over. But marijuana won't tip over someone into schizophrenia that is probably not predisposed to it. So, you know, most people smoke it and, you know, do not end up in mental hospitals. But some do. Question: How will science pinpoint the genetic components of mental disorders?James Watson: We've sort or proposed, you know, sequencing 100,000 in mental ill people because it's not going to be just one gene that's... you know, you can stop a car from functioning by, you know, destroying a large number of different parts. And the same way you can sort of put the brain and make it dysfunctional by just destroying one small part of a whole operating system. So, we're pretty sure there's at least hundreds of genes. But we think they will be put together where there will be some pathway to this schizophrenia, by which we can intervene in some cases.
And it's too complicated now for me to say, but it may be even though many genes are involved, the way the brain works may nonetheless enable us to cure some. Some cases of autism, which look as hopeless as anything is that when people have abnormally high temperature and fever their symptoms diminish. Now, so you think, well just raise their temperature a couple of degrees and they won't be so sick. We're in fact going to have a meeting about this. So, I'm dominated you know, I want to... we have to get the genetic information, but as a parent, I want something good to happen, you know, over the next five to 10 years.
Recorded on September 28, 2010Interviewed by Paul Hoffman