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The Connection Between Genetics and Depression

The Connection Between Genetics and Depression

Can depression run in the family? The simple and not-so-simple answer is yes and no. People with a first-degree relative diagnosed with depression have a greater risk of developing it. However, some people develop depression and do not have a family history of the disorder. There are even people who have afflicted relatives but never develop depression themselves. As the most common psychiatric disorder, finding the cause of depression is vital.

Unfortunately, most of the research surrounding depression is relatively recent. According to the sociologist Allan Horowitz in How an Age of anxiety Became an Age of depression, researchers and clinicians only built up momentum in depression research in the early 1960s.

Depression can be studied scientifically, socially, and behaviorally. Research spanning these three areas has increased in the past few decades due to the general public’s destigmatized perception of mental illness and acceptance.

The “Depression Gene”

There is no single gene to blame for depression. The research surrounding the genetics of depression is still in its early stages. Instead of targeting a single gene, studies have suggested that varying genes can contribute to the risk of depression. Genes affecting hormones, brain activity, and social response are possibilities. In an article from the Journal of Affective Disorders on gene-environment interaction from January 15, 2018, the gene most commonly associated with depression is SLC6A4, the serotonin transporter gene. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that modulates almost all human behaviors.

Clinicians also take into consideration the varying forms of depression can take on. In some people, depression may be a characteristic feature, a cog in a much larger machine. There are a few variations in postpartum depression, which occurs around the child’s birth. The cause of this is the dramatic drop in estrogen and progesterone. The drop leaves new mothers feeling tired, depressed, and anxious.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Another variation is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is a form of depression that occurs with the changing of seasons. SAD is linked with chemical changes in the brain as it reacts to less sunlight and shorter days as the season changes to late fall and winter. Personality disorders are also linked with depression. Humans are social beings, and when our needs are not met, unreal expectations or otherwise, depression can develop over time.

Outside of being a characteristic feature, depression itself is its own disorder and has its own symptoms. There are many moving pieces, and scientists are still trying to make sense of them. The risk factors are different for everyone, and researchers need to conduct more studies before narrowing down the genetic basis of depression.

Women Have a Higher Risk of Developing Depression

However, research has been conducted on who is more likely to develop depression. Studies of depression have consistently shown a higher appearance rate in women. Twin researchers are highly interested in studying if the heritability of depression differs between genders. In a research study interviewing over 6000 individual twins and two 900 complete twin pairs, clinicians were able to evaluate the higher risk in women than in men based on the familial, genetic connection between both twins. The risk in women is double that of men, which most clinicians have attributed to hormonal factors.

Nature vs. Nurture

If there is a gene that results in the development of depression, there is still the question of its dominance. Right now, it comes down to an age-old sentiment: nature vs. nurture. Epigenetics studies how behaviors and the environment can alter how a person’s genes work. Research in this field has shown that environmental factors play an equally critical role. Depression can be brought upon by substance use, prescribed medications, and difficult times in the person’s life, such as a death in the family. Prolonged periods of stress can also result in depression.

Our Childhood

Our childhood also plays a large part in our mental development toward adulthood. Childhood abuse and neglect are associated with a higher risk of developing depression. The same applies to financial troubles, divorce in the family, or any other traumatic indecent. Being raised in an environment where you feel supported and loved decreases the chances of developing depression. In the same vein, in an environment that is isolating and lonely, the chances are higher. The weight of these risks remains the same despite the genetic factors involved.

Late adolescence or early adulthood is difficult due to considerable social and physical changes, but depression can occur at any age.

Underlying Physical Illnesses

Existing physical illnesses are also attributed to higher rates of developing depression. Known as co-morbidity, the simultaneous presence of two or more diseases or medical conditions in a patient, depression can develop in those with chronic pain, cancer, and disease.

The Future of the “Depression Gene”

Depression is a vast, roaring ocean. It can be traversed from different locations at different times by different people, and while the journey may be similar, no one will ever share the same experience. Current studies of depression tell us as much. While approaching depression from many point-of-views gives us a thoughtful understanding of the disorder, tangible progress in research is also hindered by the fact that several schools of thought are often at odds with one another.

Perhaps the study of genetics in depression won’t lead us to a single genetic sequence we can target and eliminate. Perhaps the cause of depression is just as complex and varying as the people it affects. In that case, it would be important to use a holistic approach and tie science to philosophy.

Whether depression runs in your family or if you are the first one, coming to terms with how you feel and how you are doing may be difficult. Depression in all its forms is never your fault and never something to be ashamed of, and at Acera Health, we will help you understand this. We all deserve to have someone to help us through the challenging days, and we provide a safe and comfortable space for you to do this. If you suspect that you or a loved one may be struggling with depression, it’s important to reach out for help. Call (949) 647-4090 for more information about how our programs can help.

LMFT, Program Director at Acera Health | Edited & Medically Reviewed

Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.

Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.


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