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In the final chapter of her 1995 memoir of manic-depression, An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison posed a question that has stayed on my mind ever since: “I have often asked myself whether, given the choice, I would choose to have manic-depressive illness.” The question haunts me because I can’t answer it, either.

When Jamison first posed her question (if there were a cure for my mental illness, would I take it?), it seemed like pure speculation. But the question is no longer so hypothetical.

In June, the journal Nature Reviews Neurology published the results of a wide-ranging study of the genetic roots of manic depression. The study included 40,000 cases and identified a startling 64 genes associated with the disease. (In a clinical setting, the disease is usually referred to as “bipolar disorder,” though I’ve always preferred the more descriptive “manic-depression.”) Studies like this one are part of a burgeoning discipline known as molecular psychiatry, a field that studies the “biological mechanisms underlying psychiatric disorders.” Molecular biologists are also making progress in studies of major (unipolar)... see more