Biography of Dr. Kenneth Kendler
Mark Keller Honorary Lecture Series 2012
Dr. Kenneth Kendler is a world-renowned expert on the genetics of psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. Fueled by a lifelong interest in how the human mind works, Dr. Kendler pursues research on how genes and the environment contribute to the development of alcohol use disorders, as well as other psychiatric problems. His research has transformed how we understand the relationships between all of these factors.
Dr. Kendler employs two major research methodologies. One is large population twin studies. Since psychiatric disorders run strongly in families, Dr. Kendler focuses on twins to help explain how genetics and the environment contribute to alcohol problems, as well as to major depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, externalizing behavior, and drug abuse. He investigates how these factors interact and correlate, and how they can contribute to the development of both psychiatric and alcohol problems in the same person. He also examines how vulnerability to these various disorders emerges.
The other key methodology Dr. Kendler uses in his research is molecular genetics. He uses various strategies, including linkage analysis, candidate gene association analysis, and genome wide association to unravel the genetic mysteries of schizophrenia, alcohol abuse, major depression, and nicotine dependence.
Dr. Kendler is inspired by the idea that “most of us live within two worlds. One is the world of atoms bouncing around – mechanistic, scientific explanations, where we understand genes as conveyors of biological information. They make proteins, the proteins construct cells, the cells influence organs. The other is a world of human agency and volition.” He believes these two worlds are inextricably linked – and seeks to understand their connections through his research.
Dr. Kendler is well known for research demonstrating these connections. Specifically, he has investigated why some people’s genetics make them less able to cope with adversity, and therefore more vulnerable to psychiatric illness and/or addiction than people with a different genetic makeup. His work is making it possible to identify the specific genetic variants that may be responsible for these differences in vulnerabilities. In addition, Dr. Kendler has helped develop critical statistical and developmental models to explain how specific genetic and environmental factors contribute to psychiatric and alcohol problems.
Dr. Kendler also makes significant contributions to the classification of psychiatric diseases through his work on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). He has helped develop the DSM III-R, DSM IV, and is currently at work on the DSM-V.
Teaching is another critical component of Dr. Kendler’s work. As a teacher, his goal is to inspire the next generation of researchers. He aims to give students “an appreciation of the awesome complexity of human behavior and the potential power of the tools we now have to shed at least some light into the darker places of the human experience.”
Dr. Kendler received his medical degree at Stanford School of Medicine and trained in Psychiatry at Yale University. His research and teaching home since 1983 has been Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) where he currently serves as Director of VCU’s Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. He is also the Rachel Brown Banks Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Human Genetics and Director of the Psychiatric Genetics Program at VCU and co-Director of the VCU Alcohol Research Center.
Dr. Kendler is one of the most often cited psychiatry researchers. He has published more than 640 articles in peer-reviewed journals. Dr. Kendler serves as the editor of Psychological Medicine, a leading international journal. He has received numerous awards and honors, including the International Society of Psychiatric Genetics Lifetime Achievement Award and the World Psychiatric Association’s Jean Delay Prize, which honors psychiatrists who have made a major contribution to the discipline.