DNA Testing Company Seeks Genetic Info For Depression, Bipolar Study

By Kelly Burch 08/04/17

The study will examine the role that genes play in how the brain processes information, including how people interpret and observe their surroundings.

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The DNA-screening company 23andMe, which allows people to do at-home genetic analysis, is recruiting 25,000 people to volunteer their genetic information and participate in a study aimed to better understand depression.

The company is seeking 15,000 people who have a diagnosis of depression and 10,000 with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Study organizers are finding the participants through their database and through other places like online forums. The study will examine the role that genes play in how the brain processes information, including how people interpret and observe their surroundings. 

It’s not the first time that 23andMe has participated in a large-scale research study. Last year the company partnered with Pfizer to locate 15 areas of the human genome that put people at a higher risk for serious depression. Previous research attempts to locate a genetic component to the disease failed, but 23andMe offered the key.

"It turned out that we just needed a really big data-set to see them,” Emily Drabant Conley, vice president of business development, told CNBC. The study utilized information from 450,000 users who had elected to make their genetic information available for research, 141,000 of whom said they had been diagnosed with depression. 

“The big story is that 23andMe got us over the inflection point for depression,” Douglas Levinson, a psychiatrist and gene researcher at Stanford University, told Technology Review last August when the results of the first study were announced. “That is exciting. It makes us optimistic that we are finally there.”

Ashley Winslow, who led the research for the first study, agreed. 

“Everyone is recognizing that this is a numbers problem,” she said. “It’s hard if not impossible to get to the numbers that we saw in the 23andMe study.”

Traditionally studies have been offered through universities, which often advertised through the research department and required participants to travel to a physical location. 23andMe streamlines the process because it has a database of more than a million users, about half of whom have opted to make their genetic information available for researchers. If more in-depth participation is needed, the company can email the database and allow people to take surveys on their smartphones. 

For the latest study, 23andMe is joining forces with the Milken Institute, a medical research nonprofit, and Lundbeck, a drug developer, to delve even deeper into the possible genetic components of depression. 

Anna Faaborg, 23andMe research manager, said that this study will be the "most intensive yet,” involving monthly assessments and surveys for nine months.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.