Magazine article The Futurist

Debunking the "Depression Gene": Depression's Causes Continue to Defy Definitive Answers

Magazine article The Futurist

Debunking the "Depression Gene": Depression's Causes Continue to Defy Definitive Answers

Article excerpt

In 2003, researchers reported to great excitement that they had identified what could be called a "depression gene"--a genetic link to the risk of major depression. But new analysis of the groundbreaking study now disputes this conclusion. The new analysis, conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health, finds no strong association between the gene and risk of depression, though it does affirm the study's findings on stressful life events as triggers for the illness.

The 2003 "depression gene" study was influential, as it benefited from advanced technologies emerging in genetic research and suggested possibilities for gene-based therapies. The study found that a gene involved in serotonin activity increased the risk of depression among individuals experiencing stressful life events over a five-year period. The study thus offered hope for genetic testing and treatment for depression.

However, the study's results have not been consistently replicated. Though the role of the presumed high-risk gene was not supported, researchers did find a correlation between stressful life events and depression risk. Moreover, the findings do not exclude the possibility of some other genetic influence on mental health.

"Rigorous reevaluation of published studies provide the checks and balances necessary for scientific process," notes NIMH director Thomas R. Insel. "We are still in the early days of understanding how genes and environment interact to increase the risk for depression."

Depression reportedly affects about 121 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and is among the leading causes of disability. And while researchers debate depression's causes, patients seek solutions. Antidepressant use among Americans nearly doubled in the decade between 1996 and 2005, with more than 10% of people over age 6 reportedly receiving antidepressant medications, reports NIMH.

In Spain, nearly one-fourth of women now take antidepressants and 30% take tranquilizers, according to a new study published by the journal Atencion Primaria. Rather than studying the genetic risks for depression, however, the Spanish study focused on environmental factors, specifically problems within the family and stressful life events (SLEs). …

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