A big part of furthering our understanding of mental health is furthering our understanding of how biology and genetics interact with our mental wellbeing. And a new study published in the journal Nature Genetics is making serious headway on that aim. The study identified 44 genetic variants that influence depression, as well as found that we all possess some of those risk factors, Newsweek reported. It's a major breakthrough for folks who have depression and are often faced with statements like “Exercise cures depression,” and, “If you think more positively, you’ll stop feeling depressed" — this study shows that depression can literally be in our genes, and this can potentially impact how we treat depression moving forward.
The study involved more than 200 scientists working with the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, Gizmodo reported. Together, they conducted "what's known as a genome-wide association study, scanning the genomes of 135,458 people with depression and 344,000 people without depression to identify variants associated with major depression," according to Gizmodo.
These 44 variants "were associated with clinical features of major depression and implicated brain regions exhibiting anatomical differences in cases," according to the study's abstract. Scientists who worked on the study also indicated that they found a genetic relationship between major depression and schizophrenia, and overall concluded that "[a]ll humans carry lesser or greater numbers of genetic risk factors for major depression. These findings help refine the basis of major depression and imply that a continuous measure of risk underlies the [clinical development of depression.]"
The variants were also "linked to the regions of the brain targeted by some antidepressant drugs," Gizmodo reported.
Cathryn Lewis, professor of statistical genetics and a senior author on the study at King’s College London, told The Guardian it was not surprising researchers found numerous genes associated with depression. "There is certainly no single gene for depression," she said. She also noted the potential relationship between the "genetic burden" of these risk factors, and external pressures, saying, "If you have a lower genetic burden of depression, perhaps you are more resistant to the stresses we all experience in life."
In a statement, Dr. Gerome Breen of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, who worked on the study, said, "With this study, depression genetics have advanced to the forefront of genetic discovery. The new genetic variants discovered have the potential to revitalise [sic] depression treatment by opening up avenues for the discovery of new and improved therapies."
Newsweek reported that "[c]urrently only around half of patients report responding well to current treatments such as medication and therapy to ease their symptoms." According to the statement, Breen is currently working on furthering this research by "working on an online tool, for release in the autumn, to allow volunteers with depression to take part in further genetic studies."
It is important to note that the data examined by the 200 scientists working on this study came mostly from people of European descent, "but researchers contrasted European results with a study of depression and genetics in Han Chinese population," and "[t]he lack of overlap in relevant variants between the two populations highlights the ongoing need for more diversity in genetic research," Gizmodo reported.
Research will also need to look at external risk factors when it comes to developing or furthering treatments, Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, told Newsweek. "[W]e 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. Research has shown that a combination of medication, talking treatments, physical activity and self-care can all play a part in treating depression."
With this study's findings contributing to our overall knowledge of depression and how it works, researchers may be able to develop new avenues of treatment for folks who aren't being helped by current options. But no matter what happens going forward, the most important thing about this study is the evidence showing we all carry risk factors for depression, and those risk factors are biological.