People with a particular type of gene are more deeply affected by their life experiences, whether good or bad, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Melbourne.
The findings challenge traditional ideas about depression, showing that although having a certain gene might be considered a risk factor for depression, this same gene might actually be beneficial in another context.
The researchers conducted the study to determine why some, but not all, adults who have experienced sexual or physical abuse as children go on to develop long-term depression. They focused on a particular gene, known as SERT, that transports the mood-regulating chemical, serotonin. Every person has one of three types of SERT gene, either the long-long (l/l), the short-long (s/l), or the short-short (s/s).
The team DNA tested 333 middle-aged participants of Northern and Western European ancestry. They recorded their depressive symptoms each year over a five-year period.
The findings showed that participants with the s/s genotype (23 percent) who had experienced sexual or physical abuse as a child were more likely to experience ongoing severe depressive symptoms in middle age. However, those with this same genotype but no history of abuse were actually happier than the rest of the population.
The researchers believe the findings challenge traditional thinking about depression. In the future, the s/s genotype could signal a person’s susceptibility to depression, particularly if they have a history of child abuse. And it may help doctors identify patients who need extra assistance to recover from depression.
Lead researcher Dr. Chad Bousman said while the relationship between the SERT gene and depression has been studied before, it has never been examined over time.
Tracking this relationship over five years provides insights on changes in depressive symptoms over time and evidence that these symptoms in some people are more affected by their life experiences. He believes the findings could offer hope to people who experience ongoing clinical depression.
“Our results suggest some people have a genetic makeup that makes them more susceptible to negative environments, but if put in a supportive environment these same people are likely to thrive,” Bousman said.
He said this is good news for people experiencing depression and their health care providers.
“You can’t change your genotype or go back and change your childhood, but you can take steps to modify your current environment,” he said. “It also means that it’s not as clear-cut as telling a person that because they have a risk gene, they’re doomed. This research is showing that’s not the case at all.”
“A person’s genes alone are not enough to determine how they might experience depression. This research tells us that what may be considered a risk gene in one context, may actually be beneficial in another. So this directly opposes the notion of genetic determinism, the idea that your genes define your fate,” Bousman added.
The University of Melbourne researchers are now exploring ways to identify people who are most sensitive to life experiences by examining multiple genes at the same time.
The new findings are published in British Journal of Psychiatry Open.
Source: University of Melbourne