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Genes may hold the key to treating persecutory delusions

A woman in knit cap and scarf looks behind her at a dark figure of a man
Office on Women's Health
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

If half the participants in a psychiatric study of people who feel persecuted do better and a quarter don't make any improvement, what does that tell you? It may show the need for more genetic research.

Scientists at Britain's Oxford University are involved in a study of "persecutory delusions." It's a relatively small patient group, but there are solid numbers on what the "Feeling Safe" program might mean to them.

These are patients who feel there is someone or some group out to get them and anti-psychotic medicine didn't help them. Often, they are unemployed and out of the flow of life. They also have shorter lifespans.

This new treatment aims to work directly with the patients to persuade them to reconsider their fears.

University at Buffalo professor and Psychiatry Chair Dr. Steven Dubovsky said the researchers get patients to confront those fears.

"Let's look at this thinking and let's say, 'Maybe you're right, maybe you're not,'" Dubovsky said. "Maybe the FBI is out to get you. The FBI is out to get some people. Maybe they are out to get you. Maybe they're not. Let's look at the evidence, one way or another. Let's look at ways you could feel safer, even if the FBI is after you. They've been after you for 20 years. They haven't done anything yet. Maybe you don't have to feel so worried."

Dubovsky said there is increased research looking at the genes of patients who do really well in studies or who gain nothing. Scientists know a lot more about where in the genome the problem might be.

Studying that might tell researchers who will benefit from a particular treatment and who likely won't.

"It certainly shows us the one thing we should all take notice of with studies like this is, that psychiatry is not just pushing a bunch of pills at people and you think that all you have to do is take a medicine and you will be well," he said. "Most psychiatric conditions are a lot more complicated than just the right medicine will fix you completely. It'll be gone."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.