Study Uses DNA Database to Identify Genetic Causes of Depression

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Gene testing company 23andMe has sold more than 1 million of its at-home gene sequencing kits to date. While the $199 kits are mostly just for fun and curiosity, the growing database of customers who have willingly shared their genetic results with third-party researchers and scientists may be helping to build a better understanding of how DNA influences both our physical and mental health.

A new study recently published in the journal Nature Genetics has identified 15 key DNA locations that may affect a person’s chances of developing clinical depression. The researchers were able to utilize data from more than 450,000 23andMe users to compare the gene sequences of depressed and non-depressed individuals and to track patterns and variations in DNA that may correspond with neuron development in the brain.

The study is the largest of its kind, thanks to the wealth of data made available. Past attempts to pinpoint genetic variables in complicated psychological issues like depression have been marginal at best.

“Everyone is recognizing that this is a numbers problem,” said lead researcher Ashley Winslow, director of neurogenetics at the Orphan Disease Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a former scientist for Pfizer. “It’s hard if not impossible to get to the numbers that we saw in the 23andMe study.”

Winslow and her colleagues at UPenn teamed with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital to comb the DNA data and identify possible areas of genetic susceptibility. While the results are unlikely to lead to any new treatments anytime soon, it does carve a path of better understanding for the mechanisms behind depression, which can be highly stigmatized in society; it’s estimated that over 80% of people with depression never seek out professional help.

“We hope these findings help people understand that depression is a brain disease with its own biology,” said Roy Perlis of Massachusetts General Hospital. “Now comes the hard work of using these new insights to try to develop better treatments.”

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