Scientists Discover Dozens of Genes Linked To Depression

By Kelly Burch 05/07/18

During a recent study, scientists discovered 44 gene variants that increase the risk of depression.

researcher studying genetics

People with depression and other mental health issues could benefit from biomarkers that can help them be quickly diagnosed with the disease so they may access treatment that works.

A new study published in the journal Nature Genetics brings this closer to reality, by linking major depression with 44 genes. 

“With this study, depression genetics has advanced to the forefront of genetic discovery,” Dr. Gerome Breen from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London said in a statement. “The new genetic variants discovered have the potential to revitalize depression treatment by opening up avenues for the discovery of new and improved therapies.”

The study examined the DNA of 135,000 people who reported having depression and about 344,000 people who did not. Scientists identified 44 gene variants that increase the risk of depression, 30 of which were newly discovered. Although everyone has some of the risk factors identified, together these can increase the likelihood of having depression. 

Importantly, the study also found that lifestyle factors, including a higher BMI (body mass index), can contribute to the risk for developing depression. 

"This study has shed a bright light on the genetic basis of depression, but it is only the first step," said Professor Cathryn Lewis of King’s College London, which helped lead a global team of scientists involved in the study. “We need further research to uncover more of the genetic underpinnings, and to understand how genetics and environmental stressors work together to increase risk of depression.”

Researchers hope that identifying risk factors for depression will help them to develop more targeted and effective treatment for it, which affects 14% of people around the globe and is one of the biggest causes of disability globally. 

Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, a UK-based organization that addresses mental health issues, told Newsweek that all progress in understanding the root causes of depression is important.

"However, we need to look at the various factors that can cause mental health problems like depression—such as difficult life experiences, trauma, physical illness or poverty—to better understand the role that genetics may play," said Buckley. "Research has shown that a combination of medication, talking treatments, physical activity and self-care can all play a part in treating depression.”

Others in the mental health field were happy to see depression being treated seriously by scientists. 

“We look forward to seeing how this could lead to potential new treatments for depression and other mental illnesses. Currently mental health research and treatment is far behind where it should be and this could be an important step in the right direction,” said Brian Dow, director of external affairs at Rethink Mental Illness.

“This major study is another important piece of the jigsaw in our understanding of what depression is and what the genetic risk factors might be. While we cannot discount social or economic factors when it comes to mental illness, it is encouraging to see quality research helping to fill in the gaps.”

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