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Madison Polkowitz / Gavel Media

Discovery of Genetically-Linked Depression Opens up New Dialogue

Persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, lost of interest in hobbies, decreased energy and appetite, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, thoughts of suicide—if you are experiencing any or a combination of these symptoms, you may be suffering from depression. The typical treatment for individuals with depression is a combination of therapy and medication. However, anyone who has suffered from mental illness can attest to the difficulty in seeking treatment; when the cause of the problem is unclear, everything can seem challenging. Unlike common ailments such as diabetes and heart disease, depression manifests itself mentally and emotionally rather than physically. This makes it very difficult to discern what contributes to its development. While doctors agree trauma and stress play a role, a new study has identified dozens of genes in the human genome that may directly contribute to depression.

A study in the April 26 issue of Nature Genetics analyzed the genomes of 135,000 patients with major depressive disorder. This form of depression is characterized by a discrete episode that is clearly different from one's usual feelings. By comparing these genomes to those of 350,000 people without depression, researchers were able to identify 44 specific variants linked to an increased risk of depression. The study also found that many of these genes are associated with the appearance of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other health issues, including obesity and insomnia.

"This landmark study represents a major step toward elucidating the biological underpinnings of depression,’" said Dr. Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Dr. Hyman's study is revolutionary for two distinct reasons. The first is because the researchers broke into uncharted territory. Although it was already widely understood that genetics contribute to risk of mental illness, 30 of the 44 genes had not been previously identified through any other study. The second reason is that the majority of the newly discovered genes are not associated with neurotransmitters in the brain. Current antidepressants on the market work by targeting these specific brain areas, and this could explain the ineffectiveness of drug therapy on nearly half of all patients. Given that depression affects about 15% of the world's population, this finding emphasizes the serious need for medications that can address a variety of biological causes of depression. Hyman's team hopes that their study will set the groundwork for future groups to investigate such causes and treatments.

These findings are good news for people suffering from depression, especially college students. Periods of high stress can be particularly dangerous for those with higher risks of depression. College is a particularly stressful time, and students experience change at a rapid pace. They are expected to make friends, get along with roommates, become involved on campus, and excel in classes, all while taking care of their physical and mental wellbeings. When there is so much to worry about, students tend to forgo maintaining their health. This only worsens the situation, as feeling sad, hopeless, and lethargic serves to make tasks even more difficult. The potential for new and better treatment offers hope to those stuck in this exhausting cycle.

There is no need to wait for science if you believe you may be depressed. Drug therapy is effective and life-changing for many. If medication is not for you, counseling can help you navigate and understand your feelings. Above all, it is important to remember that depression is not a character flaw, but rather a legitimate medical condition. Do not ignore or try to explain away the feeling. Ask for help instead. At Boston College, University Counseling Services work to address the mental and emotional health needs of students. They offer counseling, psychotherapy, group meetings, and psychiatric medication when appropriate. Make an appointment by calling 617-552-3310 or by visiting their office in Gasson 001, Monday through Friday from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Don’t suffer in silence.