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Depression: When It’s All in the Family

If depression runs in your family, you can help yourself -- and your children -- identify and cope with the condition.
By
WebMD Magazine
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Researchers are becoming increasingly aware that depression runs in families -- sometimes across multiple generations. If Lynne Boschee were to draw her family tree of depression, for instance, it would branch across three generations to include her father and her brother and his two teen-aged children. On one limb would be Boschee herself, who had postpartum depression. Her 4-year-old son, Jack, doesn’t have the illness, but she worries that his excessive fears and panic attacks spell an anxiety disorder, which experts say is often a childhood precursor to depression.

This multigenerational portrait of depression unsettles others whenever Boschee mentions it. “They don’t know what to say. They change the subject really quickly,” says the 42-year-old communications consultant in Phoenix. Because she believes that her family is genetically vulnerable to depression, she speaks openly to fight the stigma and secrecy, she says. “I think that depression and anxiety run in families, just like heart disease and diabetes.”

Doctors recognize that depression can weave a long thread of despair. “Depression is highly familial,” says Myrna Weissman, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University. She began studying depression in families in 1982 and has now tracked three generations of family members with the disorder.

When a parent has depression, a child faces three times the risk of becoming depressed, compared to a child without a depressed parent, Weissman says. If the parent developed the mental illness before age 20, the child’s risk rises four- to fivefold.

“I’m talking about risk,” Weissman says. “Not all kids who have a depressed grandparent get depression. But if you have a depressed grandparent and a depressed parent, your probability of getting depressed is extremely high.”

Depression: Genes or Environment?

Is depression nature or nurture? Most likely, both. Depression is a complex disorder in which both genes and environment probably play a role, Weissman says. So far, research suggests genetic vulnerability that makes some people more likely to develop depression, but scientists haven’t yet found a depression gene.

They are looking for answers among several genes. “They’ve identified areas that are very interesting -- genes of interest,” says Weissman, who is currently conducting a large study on the genetics of early-onset depression.

In fact, her study fits into a wider web of work by scientists around the globe who are chasing down possible genetic causes of depression. “There’s a lot of work going on right now,” Weissman says. “Actually, what we’re trying to do is put together all these studies and do a genomewide association study, and that’s under way. That’s been done successfully and identified gene susceptibility for Crohn’s disease and diabetes, and we’re doing the same thing with depression.”

Genomewide association studies have been possible only since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. Such studies give scientists a new tool in which complete sets of DNA from many people are scanned to find genetic variations that contribute to common and complex diseases, including asthma, cancer, heart disease, and mental illnesses such as depression.

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