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Depression: It's Not Just in Your Head, It's Also in Your Genes

November 29, 2014 in Blogs

By Lloyd Sederer, Huffington Post

We need to understand our genetic predispositions to undo the stigma around mental disorders.

Ninety-seven healthy girls, ages 10 to 14, had saliva DNA samples taken. About half of them had moms with histories of depression, and about half had moms who did not. None of the girls had histories of depression.

The girls whose moms had suffered depression had significant reductions in the length of their telomeres. We all want to understand telomeres, the caps at the ends of our DNA strands, because the longer they are the longer we tend to live — and live freer of age related illnesses like heart disease, stroke, dementia, diabetes and osteoporosis. The girls whose moms didn't have histories of depression, the control group of the study, did not show the same changes in their DNA as a result of reductions in the length of their telomeres.

The researchers took the study another step: they compared both groups of girls, the former or “high-risk” group and the control or “low-risk” group, by measuring their response to stressful mental tasks. The children of moms with depression had significantly higher levels of cortisol, our stress hormone, released during these tasks than those in the control group; both had normal levels of cortisol before the stressful tasks.

These findings are what scientists call associations, namely highly significant events found together that are unlikely to co-occur randomly. In themselves, they don't prove one caused the other, but they suggest that something important, not accidental, is going on. This study demonstrated shorter telomeres in daughters of moms who had depression and greater hormonal reactivity to stress in these girls.

When the girls were followed until age 18, 60 percent of those in the high-risk group developed depression, a condition that was not evident when they were first studied. The telomere was a biomarker, an individual hallmark that a person is at higher risk for an illness — in this case for depression. We already knew that shortened telomeres were a risk factor for chronic, physical diseases but now the evidence is emerging for its likely role in depression.

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