Mass General Researchers Found Genes Linked to Depression

The findings strongly suggest that depression is a hereditary condition.

Mass General

Photo by Samantha Carey

A new study out of Massachusetts General Hospital adds gravitas to the idea that depression is a genetically inherited condition.

The study, published Monday in Nature Genetics, details 17 different genomic sites that seem to be closely linked to depression. The results are a significant step forward for the scientific community, as it’s previously been difficult to find the specific genetic variants that explain why depression tends to run in families.

The Mass General team turned to data from consumer DNA analysis company 23andMe for its study, an unusual move in the research community. Doing so allowed the researchers access to huge amounts of data, without having to find, interview, and genotype individuals.

First, the team studied data from more than 300,000 23andMe users of European descent, more than 75,000 of whom had been diagnosed with depression. From that, they were able to find two genomic regions that seemed associated with depression. Next, they analyzed another 23andMe population—45,800 people with depression and 106,000 without—and data from smaller genome studies, which included about 9,200 people with a history of depression and 9,500 controls. After combining those analyses, the researchers identified 15 genomic regions, and 17 specific sites, that were “significantly associated” with depression.

Corresponding author Roy Perlis says the findings, while limited to people of European origin, could help direct new treatments for depression, targeting the genes that may lead to the disease’s formation in the first place. Beyond that, he says the study will hopefully hammer home that depression, and other mental illnesses, are just that—illnesses.

“Identifying genes that affect risk for a disease is a first step towards understanding the disease biology itself, which gives us targets to aim for in developing new treatments,” Perlis said in a statement. “Finding genes associated with depression should help make clear that this is a brain disease, which we hope will decrease the stigma still associated with these kinds of illnesses.”