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Health & Medicine

Linking Depression to Genetics

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Scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University report a major breakthrough in our understanding of depression.  After five years of planning, more than three years of study and another year of analysis, they’ve found genetic  variants in people at increased risk for this common psychiatric disorder.

Clinical depression is more than a few hours of feeling sad or hopeless.  It’s a medical problem and a leading cause of disability worldwide.  Kenneth Kendler, a Professor of Psychiatry and Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University and Jonathan Flint from Oxford University, led a team of doctors who studied 10,000 women diagnosed with depression.

“These are individuals that have symptoms for at least two weeks, many of them had longer.  More than 98% of them described  had problems with mood, with self-esteem, with lowered energy, with pessimism.  Our rates of suicidal ideation were   relatively high. 

In partnership with the Beijing Genome Institute, they studied patients in China, because Chinese people tend to be more alike genetically than Americans.

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Kenneth Kendler, Professor of Psychiatry and Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University

“In fact, the United State is amongst the most heterogenous in the world, so that’s good for our democracy, but much harder on our genetic research.”

And in Chinese culture, the study would rarely be complicated by patients who drank or used drugs.

“By studying older women, our minimal age was 30, we found that in China at this point in women of that age, alcohol and drug abuse really don’t exist.”

For decades, scientists knew depression ran in families.

“That a little less than half of the overall vulnerability comes from your genes, but a lot also comes from your environment.”

But they found no proof in analyzing the human genome.  Now, however, Kendler says there are at least two places on the tenth chromosome where variations in genetic code signal an increased risk for depression.

“What we have done is opened a scientific door.”

He predicts research will now find other genes linked to the disease, clarify the biological pathways to depression and guide drug companies and doctors to develop new medications, preventive strategies and ways to screen for depression. 

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