Exploring The Possibilities Of A Genetic Link To Depression

Updated May 2, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Mental health is a growing concern in our society, with depression being one of the most common mental illnesses.

It's estimated that over 264 million people live with depression worldwide, which has been linked to an increased risk of suicide. Unfortunately, many cases go undiagnosed or untreated due to a lack of understanding about their causes and symptoms.

Does Depression Run in Your Family?

Recent research suggests there may be a genetic link to depression which could help us better understand this complex disorder and develop more effective treatments. By exploring the possibilities of a genetic link to depression, we 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, meaning that it may run in families or be inherited from generation to generation.

The most promising research so far has been focused on identifying specific gene variations linked to depression as well as looking at how genetic variations interact with other factors, such as environmental exposures or lifestyle choices. By understanding these complex relationships, researchers hope they may be able to develop more effective treatments for depression.

As we explore depression and how it may be linked to genetics, it's important to remember that this research is still in its early stages. While there have been some promising findings, more research needs to be done before we can definitively say what role genetics plays in depression.

What Is Depression?

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

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

Depression can have different symptoms, but some of the most common ones 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 and weight changes
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

These symptoms can vary in severity and may persist for weeks, months, or even years. It's often said that depression is like living in a black hole, where it's difficult to find joy or hope. That's why it's crucial for people experiencing depression to seek help and professional support.

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 adults.

While the causes of depression are multifactorial and not entirely clear, abnormalities in brain chemistry and functioning can play an essential role in its development and persistence.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that play a critical role in mood control, among other functions. For example, 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.

Hormones are powerful chemical messengers that help control many physiological processes, including mood. Imbalances in hormones such as cortisol, the "stress hormone," can cause brain changes that lead to depression. When the body is under stress, it releases cortisol to help it respond. 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.

In addition to neurotransmitters and hormones, research has also linked depression to abnormalities in other chemicals in the brain, specifically inflammatory markers such as 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.

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.

There are many other potential causes of depression, and in many cases, it's not entirely clear what triggers the onset of a depressive episode. However, some common causes and risk factors include:

  • Genetics and 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 our genes and mental health disorders, there is evidence to suggest 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.

So, what have scientists discovered about the genetic roots of depression? While there is still much to learn, evidence suggests that certain 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.

Does Depression Run in Your Family?

Another gene that has been linked to depression is the COMT gene, which produces an enzyme that helps to 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 include genes involved in the control of cortisol and other neurotransmitters and hormones. While it's clear that genetics can play a role in depression, it is crucial to note that this does not mean that 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 such as a poor diet, lack of exercise, and substance abuse can also contribute to depressive symptoms.

However, by studying genetics, we can better understand how depression develops and the factors that influence an individual's risk of developing this condition. While further research is needed to understand the genetic roots of depression fully, the results so far provide valuable clues into how we can identify and treat this condition.

Taken 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, we can develop more effective treatments for this condition.

Furthermore, by recognizing genetics's role in depression, we can start to address any stigma associated with mental health conditions. Instead of viewing depression as something out of our control, we can recognize that a range of factors influences the development of this condition. As such, treatment and recovery can be possible with the proper support.

Online therapy is one way to receive the support you need. A licensed therapist can help you to explore the factors that may be contributing to your depression, as well as develop strategies for managing your symptoms and improving your overall well-being. With increased accessibility and privacy, online therapy can be a great option for those needing mental health support.

Clinical studies indicate 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.


While genetics have been linked to depression, this does not mean that you are destined to develop the condition if you possess certain genetic variations. Environment, lifestyle, and other factors also play an essential role in the development of depressive symptoms. However, with increased accessibility to online therapy and treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, those living with depression can receive the support they need to manage their symptoms and work toward recovery.

You Don’t Have To Face Depression Alone. Our Experienced Counselors Can Help.

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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