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Peter McGuffin obituary
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Peter McGuffin obituary

Peter McGuffin, who passed away at the age of 74, demonstrated the significance of investigating the interplay between genetic and non-genetic factors in determining a person’s susceptibility to psychiatric disorders. He was a pioneer in recognizing the potential of the DNA revolution in advancing our understanding of these disorders, and his contributions paved the way for the use of genomics in psychiatry.

Previously, it was believed that depression could be separated into two types: reactive depression, caused by external situations, and endogenous depression, caused by internal factors like genetic predisposition.

During the 1980s, while employed at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, Peter demonstrated that this is not true. He showed that negative situations and genetic predisposition often work together to heighten the chances of experiencing depression.

These results suggest that both antidepressant medications and strategies aimed at preventing or treating depression by reducing exposure to negative circumstances may be effective in a wide range of cases.

Further research in Cardiff, conducted by the author and his wife Anne Farmer, an academic psychiatrist and co-author of multiple papers, revealed that negative life circumstances and depression are often observed within families. Their findings highlighted the complexity of this phenomenon, suggesting that a combination of lifestyle choices, a tendency to perceive adversity more strongly, and a tendency for family members to experience similar adverse events may contribute to this pattern. This emphasized the importance of thoroughly examining the interaction between genetics and the environment.

Mental health disorders are typically diagnosed by observing symptoms and behaviors, rather than relying on medical tests like brain scans or blood work. However, there was a common belief that each diagnosis represented a unique condition.

In the 1990s, Peter’s research on twins questioned this finding by demonstrating that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder share genetic factors, while also having unique components for each condition.

Afterwards, he noticed a comparable trend of both common and unique genetic elements in bipolar disorder and major depression. These discoveries were among the initial indications that our current methods of diagnosis do not accurately define separate disorders, and that we require more effective means of identifying severe mental illness.

Prior to the 1990s, the investigation of the origins of childhood psychiatric disorders primarily centered on social and psychological elements. Peter conducted significant research, once again utilizing twin studies, which highlighted the importance of also examining biological and specifically genetic factors.

In his research, he revealed that genetics play a role in the development of depression symptoms in children. However, these genetic influences are more significant during adolescence and less prominent in younger children. Additionally, he conducted pioneering studies that proved the heritability of ADHD, laying the foundation for further exploration of specific genetic factors associated with the disorder.

Peter was born in Belfast and was the oldest child of Martha and William McGuffin, a merchant navy officer. In 1959, William became a pilot for Trinity House in Southampton, and the family relocated to the Isle of Wight. Peter attended Sandown grammar school and later went on to study medicine at the University of Leeds, where he met his future wife Anne. They tied the knot in 1972, the same year Peter completed his studies.

During his later training, he developed a fascination for genetics and, as a junior doctor, conducted a study on genetic markers for schizophrenia with Anne. Their findings indicated a link to the HLA system, which was later verified by further genomic research.

After finishing his psychiatric training at the Maudsley hospital in London, he received a fellowship from the Medical Research Council to research genetics. He then went on to become a senior clinical fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry (now known as the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience and part of King’s College London).

In 1987, he was selected to lead the department of psychological medicine at the University of Wales College of Medicine in Cardiff (currently part of Cardiff University). He remained in this role until 1998, when I took over. During this time, he established the groundwork for Cardiff to become a renowned hub for psychiatric genetics and mentored numerous young researchers who would later make significant advancements in this area.

During his time in Cardiff, he co-founded the International Society of Psychiatric Genetics and served as its second president. He recognized the significance of utilizing genomics in research and initiated a European Science Foundation program to facilitate cooperation among psychiatric genetics studies in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. This paved the way for ongoing successful international partnerships.

He moved from Cardiff to lead the MRC Social Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Research Centre (SGDP) in London.

This was entirely appropriate, since his early work on depression had been a major stimulus for establishing this centre, whose aim is to integrate genetics with social and developmental research. He led the SGDP with great distinction, developing a supportive and nurturing environment that allowed its many stars to shine while also developing the careers of numerous students and junior scientists.

Under his guidance, the SGDP experienced growth and gained global acclaim for its exceptional work in various areas of psychiatric research. Peter effectively secured the necessary funds for a new facility to accommodate its operations.

In 2007, he was appointed as the dean of the Institute of Psychiatry due to his exceptional abilities as an administrator. He held this position for three years and successfully resolved a financial crisis that had affected the IOP. Despite his administrative duties, he continued to excel as a researcher and retired as the director of the SGDP in 2012 and as a consultant psychiatrist in 2014. In recognition of his contributions, he was awarded a CBE in 2016.

Anne, their three kids, Catrina, Liam, and Lucy, and five grandkids are the ones who survived him.

Source: theguardian.com