Exploring The Possibilities Of A Genetic Link To Depression

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated November 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Mental health is a growing concern in society, with depression being one of the most common mental illnesses. It's estimated that over 280 million people live with depression worldwide, which is linked to an increased risk of suicide. Understanding the causes of depression may help lead to a diagnosis and treatment plan, which can reduce the risk of dangerous symptoms of depression.

Navigate Family Ties To Depression And Generational Trauma

What Is Depression?

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes depression as a serious mental health condition characterized by persistent sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. 

Depression can affect how people feel, think, and behave and interferes with daily life, relationships, and work. Depression is more than "feeling down or sad" in response to life's challenges. It's a complex mental illness that requires understanding and support from loved ones and healthcare professionals.

Several of the most common depression symptoms include the following:

  • Persistent sadness, moodiness, or anxiety
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt
  • Lack of energy or motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Appetite changes
  • Suicidal thoughts 

These symptoms can vary in severity and may persist for weeks, months, or years. For some, depression can feel inescapable and become part of their reality, which is why depression awareness, destigmatization, and professional support can be essential. 

Depression affects people of all ages, races, and genders. However, clinical studies indicate women are twice as likely to experience depression than men. Depression can also occur in children and teenagers, but it may look different in young people than in adults. Note that men may be diagnosed less than women due to a stigma surrounding men reaching out for support.

Is There A Genetic Link To Depression? 

Recent research suggests there may be a genetic link to depression. By exploring the possibilities of a genetic link to depression, researchers can progress toward improving mental health for millions worldwide.

Scientists are studying various areas of the genome to look for genes associated with depression and exploring how genes may interact with environmental factors to create a risk. It's believed that many different genetic variations could lead to a predisposition for developing depression, which may run in families or be inherited from generation to generation. One study suggested that the hereditary factor of depression could be from 40% to 50%.  

Much of the research has focused on identifying specific gene variations linked to depression and how genetic variations interact with environmental exposure or lifestyle choices. By understanding these complex relationships, researchers hope they may be able to develop more effective treatments for depression.

Note that a lot of depression research is still in its early stages. While there have been promising breakthroughs, more research needs to be completed before professionals can definitively say what role genetics plays in depression.

Research On Depression 

While the causes of depression are multifactorial and not entirely clear, abnormalities in brain chemistry and functioning may play a role in its development and persistence, including the following. 

Neurotransmitter Abnormalities 

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that play a critical role in mood control and stress relief. Research has linked depression to abnormalities in the balance of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline. These neurotransmitters control emotions, appetite, and sleep, and disruptions in their functioning can contribute to the development and persistence of depression.

Hormone Imbalances 

Hormones are chemical messengers that control many physiological processes, including mood. Imbalances in hormones like cortisol, the "stress hormone," can cause brain changes that lead to depression. When the body is under stress, it releases cortisol to help you defend yourself. However, chronic stress and high cortisol levels can interfere with the brain's sensitivity to neurotransmitters, leading to changes in mood and behavior that contribute to depression.

Brain Chemical Abnormalities 

In addition to neurotransmitters and hormones, research has linked depression to abnormalities in other chemicals in the brain, including inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP), which is associated with pervasive inflammation in the body. Inflammatory markers are associated with the reduced availability of neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain, which can contribute to depression's development and severity.

Brain Structure 

The brain is a highly complex organ; its physiology also plays a critical role in mood control. Research has identified changes in the structure and function of different brain areas, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex, associated with depression. These changes can impact how brain regions communicate, leading to mood control disruptions that contribute to the development and persistence of depression.

Other Causes 

There are many other potential causes of depression, and in some cases, it might be unclear why depression has developed. However, below are a few causes you can discuss with your provider:  

  • Family history 
  • Trauma or abuse
  • Chronic stress and life challenges
  • Significant life changes, such as the death of a loved one or job loss
  • Substance abuse or addiction

The Role Of Genetics In Depression

As scientists continue to explore the relationship between genes and mental health, evidence suggests that genetics may play a significant role in depression.

Researchers have been studying depression genetics for many years, using various methods to identify the genetic factors that may contribute to this condition. One fundamental approach involves studying families with a history of depression to see if specific genes are passed down through the generations. Other studies use genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to identify specific genetic variations associated with an increased risk of depression.

The Results Of Research 

While there is more to learn, evidence suggests that specific genes may make an individual more vulnerable to depression. For example, clinical studies have identified a gene known as SERT that controls the amount of serotonin in the brain. Because lower serotonin levels have been linked to depression, certain variations of the SERT gene may be associated with a higher risk of depression.

Another gene linked to depression is the COMT gene, which produces an enzyme that helps break down dopamine in the brain. As a result, some variations of this gene may lead to reduced levels of dopamine in the brain, which can contribute to symptoms of depression. Other genes linked to depression control cortisol and other neurotransmitters and hormones. 

Research Conclusions 

While genetics can play a role in depression, note that this does not mean you are destined to develop the condition if you possess certain genetic variations. Instead, it suggests that having specific genes can make an individual more vulnerable to depression. 

Social and environmental factors can also play a significant role in developing this condition. For example, families that lack strong social support networks and individuals who experience chronic stress or trauma may be more likely to develop depression. Additionally, lifestyle factors like a poor diet, lack of exercise, and substance use can contribute to depressive symptoms.

Together, these findings emphasize the importance of considering biological and environmental factors when understanding depression. By better understanding the complex interplay between genetics, environment, and lifestyle, researchers can develop more effective treatments for this condition.

Navigate Family Ties To Depression And Generational Trauma

Support Options 

By recognizing genetics' role in depression, individuals can start to address the stigma associated with mental health conditions. Instead of viewing depression as a personal flaw, individuals may recognize that a range of factors influences the development of this condition. As such, treatment and recovery can be possible with professional support. 

You might also try online counseling if you're reluctant to try therapy due to cost, distance, or stigma. A licensed therapist can help you explore the factors that may be contributing to your depression, as well as develop strategies for managing your symptoms. With increased availability and discretion, online therapy can allow clients more control over their treatment. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, so you don't have to show your face if you're uncomfortable doing so. 

Clinical studies indicate that online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be one of the most effective treatments for major depressive disorder (MDD). Online CBT focuses on identifying and changing maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that can worsen depression. Through online therapy, individuals can learn to resolve underlying conflicts, gain insight into their thinking patterns, and develop healthier coping skills in a safe environment like home.

Takeaway

While genetics have been linked to depression, you aren't necessarily destined to develop the condition if you possess certain genetic variations. Your environment, childhood, and lifestyle can also play a role in developing depressive symptoms. 

However, with increased availability to treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy, those living with depression can receive support. Depression is highly treatable, so consider contacting a counselor through a platform like BetterHelp or in your area to get started.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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