Depression affects millions of people worldwide, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. It is a complex mental illness that has genetic, environmental, and social influences.
In this article, we will explore the genetic causes of depression and examine the scientific research that has contributed to our understanding of the disease.
Genetics and Depression
Depression is a multifactorial disease, meaning that many different factors contribute to its development. While environmental and social factors play a role in depression, genetic factors are also significant determinants of susceptibility to the disease.
Several studies have shown that depression is heritable, with a genetic risk of 30-40% (1,2).
Research has identified several genes that may be involved in the development of depression. These genes are involved in the regulation of neurotransmitters — the chemical messengers that transmit signals between neurons in the brain. Neurotransmitter imbalances are thought to play a key role in depression, and genetic mutations that affect neurotransmitter levels have been linked to the disease.
The Role of Serotonin
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in regulating mood, sleep, appetite, and other bodily functions.
Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression, and many antidepressant medications target the serotonin system to alleviate symptoms of the disease.
A gene called SLC6A4, which codes for a protein that transports serotonin, has been implicated in depression. This gene has a variant that affects the expression of the transporter protein, leading to lower transport of serotonin. This variant has been associated with an increased risk of depression (3,4).
Another gene, TPH2, codes for an enzyme that is involved in the synthesis of serotonin. Mutations in this gene have been linked to an increased risk of depression (5).
The Influence of Stress
Stressful life events are a major risk factor for depression, and there is evidence that genetic factors can influence an individual’s vulnerability to stress.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a system that regulates the body’s response to stress.
Stressful events can activate the HPA axis, leading to the release of cortisol — a hormone that helps the body cope with stress.
A gene called FKBP5, which codes for a protein that regulates the HPA axis, has been linked to depression. Some variations in this gene have been associated with a greater vulnerability to stress and an increased risk of depression (6).
While the exact genetic mechanisms of depression remain unclear, there is growing evidence that genetic factors play a significant role in the disease. Several genes that affect neurotransmitters and stress response have been implicated in depression, and understanding their mechanisms is an area of active research.
However, it is important to note that although a genetic risk for depression exists, it does not predetermine an individual’s susceptibility to the disease. Depression is a complex and multifactorial disease, and its development is influenced by environmental, social, and genetic factors.
Further research is needed to better understand the genetic mechanisms of depression and to develop more effective treatments for the disease.
1. Sullivan, P. F., Neale, M. C., & Kendler, K. S. (2000). Genetic epidemiology of major depression: review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157(10), 1552-1562.
2. Wray, N. R., et al. (2018). Genome-wide association analyses identify 44 risk variants and refine the genetic architecture of major depression. Nature Genetics, 50(5), 668-681.
3. Caspi, A., et al. (2003). Influence of life stress on depression: moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science, 301(5631), 386-389.
4. Risch, N., et al. (2009). Interaction between the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR), stressful life events, and risk of depression. JAMA, 301(23), 2462-2471.
5. Zhang, H. F., et al. (2018). Association between TPH2 gene polymorphisms and depression risk: A meta-analysis. Medicine, 97(16), e0551.
6. Binder, E. B., et al. (2004). Association of FKBP5 polymorphisms and childhood abuse with risk of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in adults. JAMA, 299(11), 1291- 1305.
Photo credit: CC0 Public Domain