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Work by pioneering psychologist Irving Gottesman opened the door to understanding and treating schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
He put twins on the map
Irving Gottesman showed how to get at the roots of schizophrenia and other complex mental illnesses
By Deane Morrison
September 11, 2007
For the better part of 40 years, University psychologist Irving Gottesman has done battle with a wily opponent that claims victims without warning, spares others just as capriciously, and springs from a shifting variety of causes. The opponent is schizophrenia, and in Gottesman it finally met its match. The much-decorated psychologist has torn the cloak of mystery from schizophrenia and other devastating mental illnesses, as well as criminal behavior and personality, to expose the roles of genetics, environmental factors, and sheer chance in shaping the mind. Thanks in large part to him, scientists have the tools to pick apart the complex causes of mental illness and harmful behaviors, a necessary step in devising treatments and preventive measures. "He's a groundbreaker in psychology, especially psychopathology research," says psychology professor William Iacono. "He laid the basis for schizophrenia resulting from the actions of many genes."
In August Gottesman, a senior fellow in the Department of Psychology and Bernstein Professor in Adult Psychiatry, received the Gold Medal for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology from the American Psychological Association. While revealing the hand of genetics in all kinds of traits, he has striven to shoot down the idea that genetics is destiny. "We're probabilists," he explains. "Genetics is one factor. The importance of genetics varies across traits and diseases." Born in Cleveland, Gottesman came to the University in 1956 as a graduate student on the Korean War G.I. Bill. Entranced by lectures on the biology of individual differences, he soon began a study of personality traits using identical and fraternal twins who took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI. The results were eye-opening. "I found that variances in certain personality traits, as measured by the MMPI in adolescents, were under strong genetic control," Gottesman says. "The main ones were social introversion and aggressive tendencies." Gottesman's work laid the groundwork for using twins to identify the underpinnings of traits, such as the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, headed by psychology professor Thomas Bouchard. Gottesman left the University after receiving his doctorate in 1960 but returned in 1966 to found the Program in Behavioral Genetics, which combines psychology and genetics to investigate the roots of behavior. In his work with twins, Gottesman discovered a genetic link to being diagnosed alcoholic in both males and females. And, working in Denmark, he found a genetic predisposition toward the commission of felonies in both sexes. But neither result means there's a gene for those specific behaviors; instead, what some people have is really poor self-control.
"I found that variances in certain personality traits, as measured by the MMPI in adolescents, were under strong genetic control," Gottesman says. "The main ones were social introversion and aggressive tendencies.""There are predispositions that are actually to impulsivity and lack of ability to delay gratification," Gottesman explains. "These predispositions are found on a continuum. Another such trait is authoritarianism, which is a strong drive to impose one's will on others." But it was his work with schizophrenia for which Gottesman made his most indelible mark. In the late 1960s, he and British social worker James Shields undertook an exhaustive study of twins. "It was one of the most influential twin studies in the history of psychopathology research," says Iacono. "At that time, we didn't have good interviewing techniques to identify people with schizophrenia." The resulting book, Schizophrenia and Genetics: A Twin Study Vantage Point, laid out the evidence that schizophrenia results from the actions of many genes and paved the way for others to do rigorous behavioral genetics work.
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Irving Gottesman left the University in 1980, but returned in 2001 and held a retirement party on campus. On that occasion, scientific work that stemmed from his research was presented; it is all available in a book, Behavior Genetics Principles. Other books that summarize much of his work are Schizophrenia Genesis: The Origins of Madness and Psychiatric Genetics and Genomics.