Depression (Power, 2017) – Is depression genetic?

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Nebula Genomics DNA Report for Depression

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Is depression genetic? Sample report from Nebula Genomics
Is depression genetic? Sample report variants from Nebula Genomics

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Additional Information

What is Depression? (Part 1 of Is depression genetic?)

Depression (also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a mood disorder or mental illness. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it causes severe symptoms that affect how an individual feels, thinks, and handles daily activities. Typical symptoms are depressed mood, brooding, a feeling of hopelessness and a diminished drive. Frequently, joy and feelings of pleasure, self-esteem, performance, empathy and interest in life are lost. Joy of life and quality of life are often impaired as a result. 

These complaints also occur in healthy people in the context of grief after a loss experience and need not differ in appearance from the clinical disorder; however, they usually pass by on their own. Illness is present when the symptoms persist for a disproportionate length of time or when their severity and duration are out of proportion to the factors that trigger the symptoms.

It is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. For some individuals, the disease can interfere with or limit one’s ability to carry out major life activities.

An individual showing signs of depression
Depression affects mood and how an individual things, feels, and does daily activities. Sander van der Wel. Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Is depression genetic?

The causes of depressive disorders are complex and only partially understood. There are both predispositions and acquired susceptibilities to their development. Acquired susceptibilities can be triggered by biological factors and by environmental factors such as social or psychological stress. It is most likely that a variety of factors are involved. Depression often runs in families and is more common in individuals who have a family history of the condition. 

A significant genetic factor for the occurrence of the disease is suspected to be a variation in the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR. The gene is located on chromosome 17q11.1-q12 and occurs in the population in different forms. Carriers of the short version of this allele react more sensitively to psychosocial stress and are said to have up to twice the risk of developing depression than carriers of the long allele version. In two meta-analyses in 2011, the association between the short allele and the development of depression after stress was confirmed. In a meta-analysis in 2014, significant data were found in connection with depression for a total of seven candidate genes: 5HTTP/SLC6A4, APOE, DRD4, GNB3, HTR1A, MTHFR, and SLC6A3. 

There is no depression gene. However, multiple single genetic variations have been associated, making it more likely that depression will be developed or triggered in an individual. It is most likely that genetic variants each make a small contribution to an individual’s overall risk. Several large genome-wide studies have proposed potential connections. Many are associated with genomic testing companies, such as 23andMe

People with depression are known to have physical differences in their brain and brain chemistry. Changes in function and effect of neurotransmitters involved in maintaining mood stability may play a significant role. Additionally, changes in the body’s balance of hormones may cause or trigger the condition. Hormone changes may be associated with pregnancy, thyroid problems, menopause, or other health conditions. Extreme stress may also act as a trigger, especially if an individual is genetically predisposed. 

Epidemiology (Part 3 of Is depression genetic?)

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States (7.1% of all U.S. adults) had at least one major depressive episode in 2017. Prevalence was higher in women than males. While the condition can occur at any age, it most often begins in the teens, 20s, or 30s. Prevalence is highest in individuals between the ages of 18-25. 

Risk Factors and Prevention (Part 4 of Is depression genetic?)

According to Mayo Clinic, factors that seem to increase the risk of developing or triggering depression include:

  • Depressive personality traits, such as low self-esteem and high instances of dependence, self-criticism, or pessimism
  • Traumatic or stressful events
  • Having parents or siblings or other family members with depression, bipolar depression, alcoholism, or suicide
  • Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgener, or non-binary
  • History of other mental health disorders
  • Abuse of alcohol or recreational drugs
  • Serious or chronic illness
  • Certain medications such as high blood pressure medications or sleeping pills

An individual who thinks they may be at risk, can take some steps to prevent episodes:

  • Take steps to control stress
  • Reach out to family and friends
  • Get treatment at earliest signs
  • Consider long-term maintenance treatment

Characteristics and Symptoms (Part 5 of Is depression genetic?)

There is often an overlap between depressive and anxiety disorder symptoms, as well as symptoms of bipolar disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5) in the United States defines depression as:

  • A period of at least two weeks when a person experienced a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, and had a majority of specified symptoms, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, or self-worth
  • No exclusions were made for a major depressive episode symptoms caused by medical illness, substance use disorders, or medication

Not everyone with the disease experiences every symptom. The severity, frequency, length, and amount of depression symptoms vary widely depending on the individual.

A cycle of symptoms
Symptoms of depression, viewed as a cycle. Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

Some people may experience depression once in their lives while others have multiple episodes. For many, symptoms are noticeable enough to interfere with daily life and relationships with others. If you feel depressed, it is recommended to see a doctor or mental health professional as soon as possible. 

If you feel suicidal, you should call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

Children and young adults

Symptoms may be harder to distinguish in children and young adults since the depressive signs are overlaid by age-typical behavior. This makes the diagnosis more difficult. 

In younger children, additional symptoms may include sadness, irritability, clinginess, worry, aches and pains, refusing to go to school, or being underweight. Teens may show these same signs and also include feeling negative and worthless, anger, poor performance or attendance at school, feeling misunderstood and extremely sensitive, using recreational drugs or alcohol, eating or sleeping too much, self-harm, loss of interest in normal activities, and avoidance of social interaction.

Older adults

Depression often goes undiagnosed and untreated in older adults as they may feel reluctant to seek help. Some less obvious symptoms in older adults include memory problems, personality changes, physical aches or pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, sleep problems, loss of interest in sex, not wanting to socialize, and suicidal feelings.

Forms under Unique Circumstances (Part 6 of Is depression genetic?)

Some forms of depression occur in tandem with life or medical events. A doctor may add a specifier to clarify the type of depression present. Some common types are:

  • Persistent depressive disorder – a depressed mood that lasts over two years
  • Anxious distress – accompanied by unusual restlessness or worry
  • Mixed features – depression and mania
  • Psychotic features – depression accompanied by delusions or hallucinations
  • Peripartum – occurs during pregnancy or in the weeks or months after delivery (postpartum depression)
  • Seasonal affective disorder- related to seasonal changes and reduced sunlight exposure
A child showing signs of depression
Depression may be diagnosed in children and adolescents differently than in adults.

Diagnosis (Part 7 of Is depression genetic?)

Depression is most often diagnosed by either a family physician of a psychiatrist. The disease is diagnosed when an individual experiences five or more symptoms during a 2-week period and at least one of the symptoms is either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest of pleasure. 

Possible symptoms:

  1. Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.
  2. Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
  3. Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
  4. A slowing down of thought and a reduction of physical movement (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down).
  5. Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
  6. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
  7. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.
  8. Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.

A doctor may recommend a physical exam, lab tests, a psychiatric exam, or use DSM-5 criteria to diagnose an individual. A physical exam can determine if depression is linked to an underlying health problem. Likewise, lab tests can detect problems related to the disease, such as an abnormally functioning thyroid. The psychiatric exam may include a questionnaire that helps a mental health professional analyze symptoms, thoughts, feeling, and behavior patterns. 

Treatment (Part 8 of Is depression genetic?)

Doctors can successfully treat depression in the majority of individuals. Possible treatment options include drug treatment with antidepressants, psychotherapy or a combination of drug and psychotherapeutic treatment, which is increasingly being supplemented and supported by online therapy programs. Other therapy methods such as electroconvulsive therapy, light therapy or awake therapy, sports and exercise therapy complement the treatment options. The success of treatment depends heavily on the individual and it often takes trial and error to determine the best treatment.

A women showing signs of depression
A woman suffering from depression. Author. Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.


Depression is a medical condition treated with antidepressants. They improve the way the brain uses certain chemicals to control mood or stress. Antidepressants may take 2-4 weeks to work and going off of them requires consultation with a doctor and medical advice. Stopping them abruptly can cause withdrawal symptoms. 


Examples of successful psychotherapies include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), and problem-solving therapy. 

Brain Stimulation Therapies

If medications do not seem effective, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be recommended. ECT can provide relief for people with severe depression for whom traditional medications did not work or are not able to be taken safely. ECT may cause some side effects, including short term confusion, disorientation, and memory loss. The treatment is not painful and patients cannot feel electrical impulses. You should always consult with a doctor before undergoing ECT.

In cases of high suffering and an unsatisfactory response to outpatient therapy and psychotropic drugs – but especially in cases of imminent suicide – treatment in a psychiatric clinic should be considered. Such a treatment offers the patient a daily structure and the possibility of more intensive psychotherapeutic and medical measures. 

Some smart things to do during treatment involve exercise, setting realistic goals, spending time with others, being prepared for a gradual (not immediate) mood improvement, and continuing to educate yourself about the disease. 

Did you like this article? Check out more reports like this in the Nebula Research Library! You can also read about medications such as the antidepressants Lexapro and Zoloft, on our blog.