University led genetics test sheds light on origins of depression

A study led by the University of Edinburgh has confirmed over two-hundred and fifty genes linked to depression. These findings resulted from the use of datasets and DNA records, all anonymous, along with the use of a statistical approach called Mendelian randomisation that linked depression to lifestyle activities, age, etc.

Researchers are calling this study The Genetic Links to Anxiety and Depression (GLAD). Currently, these researchers are working to find out as much as they can about diagnosis, potential treatment, and anything else to help people with mental illness. According to Professor Andrew McIntosh of the University of Edinburgh, the GLAD study aims to “find out more about why some people are more at risk than others of mental health conditions and who we might help people living with depression and anxiety more effectively in the future.” A second-year student, Juni Haugun Holden reflected, “I thought the findings of the study were really interesting. Having the ability to know more about treatment and the causes of depression will have a great impact on a lot of people with mental illness today.”

According to the Education Policy Institute, in England, the population of 16-24-year-olds with mental illness has risen by 25 per cent in the last twenty years. They also reported that around 50 per cent of university students that have mental illness have not received any support from their respective universities. Depression and anxiety impact a lot of students and people across the world, and diagnosis, as well as accessibility to treatment, is a large concern.

In terms of how the GLAD study aims to help with the diagnosis of Depression, Kate McAllister from the PR Office states, “It’s a bit more complicated, as we know that depression is a mix of genetic and environmental factors, so the aim isn’t to develop a diagnostic test as such. It could, however, help scientists developing treatments to understand why some work for some people and not for others.” A great focus of what this study aims to accomplish is being able to expand the variety of treatments that exist to better help people with various types of depression based on different factors, whether that be genetic and or environmental.

Sophie Dix, a Director of Research at Mental Health Research Charity MQ, reflected on the impact of the study for treatment specifically. She said, “The value of this [study] could really be seen when looking into the development of personalised treatments – a welcome step given the dearth of innovation in identifying new approaches. We have seen very little advancement in nearly 50 years for people living with depression and right now the avenues available are not working for everyone.” The significance of what this study aims to find could be quite transformative for the field. Specifically, Dix goes on to say that, “The power of this big genetic study is that it can point to systems in the brain which adds to our currently limited understanding in this area.”

Overall this study aims to breach the gaps in knowledge that doctors and scientists have in understanding the best treatment for patients. This has the capacity to positively impact the specific treatment people are given moving forward, to hopefully make living with depression much better.

However, a large concern, especially for students, can be access to that treatment. It can be hard to say whether or not the findings from this study will alleviate that. In addressing this, Dr. David Howard, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, responds, “In the short term this research will not change the accessibility to treatment for depression.

While the GLAD study is not currently focused on the extent to which treatment will be accessible in the future, there is a lot of consideration in studying the treatment of depression, especially for young people. Dr. Howard acknowledges the future goals in hopefully addressing treatment, especially for student populations. He states, “We know that there are two peaks for the age of depression onset, one lasting from late teens to mid-twenties and another being after 60. There may be a different genetic component underlying these different onset periods and future work building on the current research will examine.


Image credit: Khalid Albaih via Flickr

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