How Depression Differs Between Men And Women

By Kelly Burch 03/29/18

Researchers believe that the findings of a new study could change how men and women are treated for depression.

a depressed woman and man

The genetic expression of depression in the brains of men and women is vastly different, even opposite, according to a new study. 

The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, examined the brains of 26 deceased men and 24 deceased women with major depressive disorder, and compared them to the brains of individuals without major depression.

The study found that in men, 706 genes were expressed differently in the brains of people with depression, and in women 882 genes were expressed differently.

However, the way these differences manifested was not the same among the sexes: only 21 genes were changed in similar ways in both sexes, and 52 genes had changes that scientists described as opposite in men and women.

The study concluded, “The brain transcriptional profile of [major depressive disorder] differs greatly by sex.”

"We report almost no overlap in transcriptional changes across corticolimbic brain regions in men and women with [major depressive disorder], but instead opposite transcriptional changes," the authors wrote, according to Medscape News.

Women are known to suffer from major depression at about twice the rate of men, and there are also differences in the symptoms of depression among the sexes. 

Researchers found that genes related to the immune system were affected differently in men and women with depression. Increasingly, scientists have been looking at the connection between depression and immune function, said James Potash, MD, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine and a member of the American Psychiatric Association's Council on Research. Potash was not involved with the study. 

"The idea is that there is a sex-specific divergence in those genes, where there's decreased expression of immune genes in women and increased expression of immune genes in men," he said.

Researchers also theorized that sex hormones also played a role in the different ways that men and women experience depression. For example, testosterone can offer men some protection from symptoms. 

"It's not that women are more vulnerable to depression, it's actually that men are more protected," said Etienne Sibille, the lead study author and professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto, Canada. 

Understanding the ways that depression affects the brains of men and women differently could have implications for treatment.

”If you don't know there's a difference, you would tend to treat everybody the same way. Once you know there's a difference, then you can start to treat accordingly,” Sibille said.

Although the study was small, scientists noted that it is still significant. Accessing the brains of the deceased is difficult, and it is particularly difficult to access brains donated by women because they are less likely to give their bodies to science after death. 

"There just aren't that many people whose brains you can access," Potash said. 

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