News Release

Genetic risk of mental health conditions may influence where people choose to live, study suggests

Peer-Reviewed Publication

King's College London

Living in cities has been highlighted as an environmental risk factor for schizophrenia and, to a lesser extent, other mental health conditions. However, few studies have explored genetic effects on the choice of residence.

New research, published in JAMA Psychiatry, challenges the proposals that city-living is a simple environmental risk factor for schizophrenia or that those with diagnosed mental health conditions move to cities seeking better access to healthcare services. Instead, the research suggests that genetic liability to a variety of mental health conditions may affect an individual’s choice of residence.

The research was part-funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre.

First author Jessye Maxwell, PhD candidate from Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London, said: “Our research shows that at some level an individual’s genes select their environment and that the relationship between environmental and genetic influences on mental health is interrelated. This overlap needs to be considered when developing models to predict the risk of people developing mental health conditions in the future.

“Importantly the majority of those people in our analysis did not have a diagnosed mental health condition so we are showing that across the UK adult population this genetic risk for mental health conditions plays a role in the environment that people live.”

Using the genetic data from 385,793 UK Biobank participants aged 37 to 73, the researchers calculated the polygenic risk score (PRS) for each individual for different mental health conditions. The PRS assesses the genetic liability across the entire genome of each individual rather than analysing liability at the level of individual genes.

The relationship to where people currently live and where they have moved to was analysed using address history and geographical distribution of population density in the UK based on census data from 1931 to 2011.

The study revealed higher genetic risks of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia and autism spectrum disorder and lower genetic risk for ADHD in those who moved from rural to urban areas, compared to those who stayed in rural areas.

Lead author, Dr Evangelos Vassos, Research Fellow at the IoPPN, King’s College London and Consultant Psychiatrist said: “Our study provides further evidence that genetic liability to a variety of mental disorders may contribute to the choice of a person’s environment. The findings do not negate the important role that environment plays in the development of mental health conditions but it does suggest that we need more integrated approaches when exploring the causes of psychiatric disorders.

“The findings on ADHD are particularly interesting as, unlike other mental health conditions, people at low genetic risk of developing ADHD appear to have the tendency to move to cities. This observation highlights the importance of examining the low end of the distribution of genetic liability and not only focusing on people at high risk. More research is needed to understand the possible reasons behind this distinction.”

The study was carried out by researchers from the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London.

Census data was provided through and uses statistical material which is copyright of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project, Humphrey Southall and the University of Portsmouth.

The paper ‘The association between genetic risk for psychiatric disorders and the probability of living in urban settings’ was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

UNDER STRICT EMBARGO until 4.00 pm BST / 11:00 am EST, Wednesday 27 October 2021


For a copy of the paper ‘The association between genetic risk for psychiatric disorders and the probability of living in urban settings’ under strict embargo please contact

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  • Liz Morrow, Communications and Engagement Officer, NIRH Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre,

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The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)

The mission of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do this by:

  • Funding high quality, timely research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care;
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  • Collaborating with other public funders, charities and industry to help shape a cohesive and globally competitive research system;
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About King’s College London and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience

King's College London is one of the top 35 UK universities in the world and one of the top 10 in Europe (QS World University Rankings, 2020/21) and among the oldest in England. King's has more than 31,000 students (including more than 12,800 postgraduates) from some 150 countries worldwide, and 8,500 staff. King's has an outstanding reputation for world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s is the premier centre for mental health and related neurosciences research in Europe. It produces more highly cited outputs (top 1% citations) on mental health than any other centre (SciVal 2019) and on this metric we have risen from 16th (2014) to 4th (2019) in the world for highly cited neuroscience outputs. World-leading research from the IoPPN has made, and continues to make, an impact on how we understand, prevent and treat mental illness and other conditions that affect the brain. @KingsIoPPN


About UK Biobank

UK Biobank is a large-scale biomedical database and research resource containing genetic, lifestyle and health information from half a million UK participants. UK Biobank’s database, which includes blood samples, heart and brain scans and genetic data of the 500,000 volunteer participants, is globally accessible to approved researchers who are undertaking health-related research that’s in the public interest.

UK Biobank recruited 500,000 people aged between 40-69 years in 2006-2010 from across the UK. With their consent, they provided detailed information about their lifestyle, physical measures and had blood, urine and saliva samples collected and stored for future analysis.

UK Biobank’s research resource is a major contributor in the advancement of modern medicine and treatment, enabling better understanding of the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses – including cancer, heart diseases and stroke. Since the UK Biobank resource was opened for research use in April 2012, over 23,000 researchers from +90 countries have been approved to use it and more than 2,000 peer-reviewed papers that used the resource have now been published.

UK Biobank is generously supported by its founding funders the Wellcome Trust and UK Medical Research Council, as well as the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Department of Health, Northwest Regional Development Agency and Scottish Government. The organisation has over 150 dedicated members of staff, based in multiple locations across the UK. Find out more here:

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