New Clues About a Depression Gene
Study: Brain's Wiring for Mood Regulation May Be Affected
May 9, 2005 -- Hot on the trail of the genetic influences on depression,
researchers may have found a new clue about one particular gene.
The gene -- called 5-HTT (the serotonin transporter gene) -- may be one of
several genes that affect susceptibility to depression. Serotonin, a brain
chemical messenger, has been implicated in depression. When levels get too low,
you get depressed.
However, a variation in this gene doesn't seem to doom anyone to depression
by itself. If it did, Daniel Weinberger, MD, and colleagues might have had a
harder time with their study. The results appear in Nature
Neuroscience's online edition.
The exact causes of depression are not known. Both genetic and environmental
factors may play a role.
For the public, perhaps the most important thing to know about depression is
that it's treatable. It's also a serious, widespread illness tied to other
health risks. Nearly 19 million American adults per year have depression,
according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Weinberger's study only included people who were not mentally ill; some had
a different version of the 5-HTT gene, which has been linked to increased
vulnerability to depression in response to life's stresses.
A total of 114 people got brain scans with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Then, 94 participants got a brain scan while viewing images of angry or fearful
faces. That scan was intended to show the brain's fear circuitry in action.
People with short versions of the 5-HTT gene had decreased brain regions
critical for the extinction of negative emotions, says the study. They also had
weaker connections in this region; the altered circuitry may increase their
susceptibility for depression.
Key Brain Areas for Depression
The difference in brain regions was seen in two parts of the brain. One was
the amygdala, a fear-processing center deep inside the brain. The other was the
cingulate, an emotion-dampening center located near the front of the brain.
"The brain handles information much like an orchestra," says
Weinberger in a news release. "So we asked questions akin to, 'Are the
violin and the clarinet playing the same tune and to what extent might this
gene account for it?'"
Almost 30% of the variation in participants' scores for harm avoidance -- an
inherited temperamental trait associated with depression and anxiety -- was
explained by how well the mood-regulating circuitry was connected, says an NIHM
If you suspect depression, get professional help immediately. Lifestyle
change, medications, and counseling may make a big difference in how you feel.
The NIMH says everyone is different, but depression symptoms can include:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once
enjoyed, including sex
- Fatigue, feeling "slowed down," or decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Insomnia, early morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
- Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as
headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain