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Depression Health Center

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‘Depression Gene’ Linked to Response to Stress

Study Shows Gene Plays Role in the Ways People React to Stressful Events
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 4, 2011 -- An analysis of 54 studies suggests that there really is a depression gene that can affect how people respond to stressful life events.

The new study, which appears in the Jan. 3 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, should help resolve controversy regarding the role of this gene.

People with a short variation of the serotonin transporter (5-HTTLPR) gene are more likely to become depressed when faced with certain stressful life events than their counterparts who have the longer variation, the new study showed.

What’s more, not all stressful life events are created equally when it comes to depression risk. For example, this gene raises risk of depression in people who have experienced stress related to childhood maltreatment and severe medical illness as opposed to other stressful events.

The “depression gene” was first put on the radar in 2003, and much hope was pinned on this gene. Its discovery was heralded as one of the greatest advances of the year. Things changed dramatically in 2009 after an analysis of 14 studies cast doubt on the gene’s effect on the relationship between stress and depression.

The new analysis included 54 studies published from 2001 and 2010 of more than 41,000 people. The results of the analysis show strong evidence that the short 5-HTTLPR gene does, in fact, affect an individual's ability to develop depression under stress.

“This is the final word,” says Srijan Sen, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“A lot of resources and money have gone into looking at this one specific gene and whether it has an association with risk of depression, and now we can move as a field to look more broadly across the human genome to find other genes involved in depression,” he says. “This meta-analysis includes three or four times as many studies, and clearly there is an effect.”

Gene Testing Not Advised

Researchers still don’t know how this gene affects depression risk. “It seems like people who have the short genetic variant are more reactive to positive and negative events,” Sen says. “They react more emotionally in both ways.”

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