Are you genetically at risk of depression? Scientists find 30 new genes linked to the disorder
It’s the world’s leading cause of disability around the world, according to the World Health Organisation, but our treatments for depression are distinctly patchy.
The mental health disorder can causes sufferers to lose everything from enthusiasm and energy to appetite and sleep and not all treatments work for all people.
Now researchers have revealed something which could well give sufferers hope. Published in Nature Genetics, the study involved researchers comparing genetic information from 135,000 people who self-reported depression to 345,000 mentally healthy individuals. By seeking out the common gene variants, researchers were able to pinpoint 44 clear points of difference – and most intriguingly of all, 30 of them have never previously been associated with the disorder.
In fact, there’s likely to be many more than just the 44, but even in a study of this size, some will just be too subtle to spot. As Professor Cathryn Lewis, senior author of the study, told The Guardian: “We know that thousands of genes are involved in depression with each having a very modest effect on a person’s risk. There is certainly no single gene for depression.”
Still, of the genes tagged as noteworthy by the study, many are integral to how neurons grow and behave. Some of them are also related to neurotransmitters such as serotonin – which makes sense as this is the line of attack many current antidepressants choose. Exploring the other findings could lead to new treatments for depressed individuals – and excitingly these theoretical new drugs may target areas untouched by our existing medicines.
We’re a long way from that, though. The first step is to check whether the foundations of the paper are valid – there’s a difference between self-reporting as depressed and being clinically diagnosed, after all. Another point: given previous research has indicated that genetics only explains 40% of depression, it’s possible that many of those in the ‘healthy’ comparison group have the potential to suffer from depression – they’ve just been lucky to avoid it thanks to life circumstances or other aspects of biology.
Nonetheless, this research is hugely exciting and could give hope to millions of people around the world. We will watch future developments with interest.