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Genes and depression - expert Q&A

Research has provided new evidence of the genetic links to severe depression, providing hope for the development of more effective, personalised care for those affected.

We speak to our Director of Research, Sophie Dix, to take a closer look. 

What’s the issue? 

Around one in five people worldwide will experience depression in their lifetime - yet our knowledge of what causes it remains incredibly limited. And this has contributed to precious few advances in treatment for decades. We simply don’t understand what causes depression.

Let’s be clear, when we talk about depression we don’t mean the normal ups and downs of life that are experienced by us all. Imagine feeling like that for weeks, months, even years at a time? Depression is a serious illness that has an immense impact on both an individual and society as a whole. It affects someone’s mood, ability to experience enjoyment, sleep; it impacts relationships, family and employment.

It can also be deadly, as someone affected by severe depression is at a higher risk of attempting to take their own life. 

What does the research say?

This is the world’s largest study to date that attempts to map out genes that increase the risk for depression.

Using genetic data from half a million people in the UK, US, Iceland and Denmark, scientists from the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium have identified 44 genes that are linked to depression – three time as many as have previously been identified. 

Why is this exciting?

Scientists have struggled to find new treatments for depression – in fact, our current treatments haven’t fundamentally changed for nearly 50 years. Whilst drugs or psychological treatments such as talking therapies work for some, they don’t work for everyone, leaving millions of people worldwide without the help they need.

Some of the gene variants identified in the study are already known to be involved in depression - and currently being targeted by existing drugs. 

Importantly, many of the gene variants identified in this study haven’t previously been linked to depression – potentially offering new avenues of research for scientists to develop more effective drugs or other types of support.

And with current prescribing carried out largely on a trial-and-error basis, it’s clear that we need not only new approaches, but also the ability to identify which current treatments may work for someone. Understanding genes has led to ‘personlised medicine’ – i.e. knowing which treatment to use – in many areas such as cancer. This research brings this a step closer for mental health conditions. 

Gene variants were also identified that show an overlap with the risk of physical illnesses such as obesity. This deepens our understanding as to as to how physical and mental illnesses are intrinsically linked.

What are the caveats?

Genes are only one factor that might put someone at risk of depression. And even if you carry these genes – it doesn’t mean that you will  get depression. In fact, even if you carry many of these genes it only increases your risk by about three and half times. There are many other risks for depression – for example poverty, stress and traumatic experiences. 

We need more research to understand how these factors combine to lead to depression if we are going to understand, and one day intervene and prevent depression. MQ-funded research is aiming to do just that – focusing specifically on young people.

This research is certainly no quick fix - it won’t lead to new treatments all by itself. But it is a big advance in our knowledge of the causes of depression, and by piecing together breakthroughs like these, we provide new opportunities to transform the way we tackle depression.

We only have to look at how research has brought major advances for conditions like cancer and HIV to see what can be achieved for mental health.

Last updated: 28 April 2018

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