Genetic causes of depression unearthed

genetic causes of depressionCC: Maksym Kaharlytskyi at Unsplash

As the biggest cause of disability worldwide, depression affects one in six people. Even in its mildest forms, it can make life feel intolerable. At its worst, it can result in death. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the genetic causes of depression are a major research target. Recent evidence from psychiatrists in Scotland has unearthed more about the genes that cause this disease.

Are there any genetic causes of depression?

According to some statistics, around 40% of people with depression can find a genetic link. If a first-degree relative suffers from poor mental health, you’re more likely to as well.

When investigating the genetic causes of depression, scientists face lots of challenges. For example, you could argue that living with a depressed parent is an environmental trigger for the condition. If that parent is unable to provide the emotional care as you grow up, it’s natural that your mental health will suffer.

At the same time, it’s important not to rely on environmental causes alone. Recent research from Scotland used the DNA from donors who donated to databases such as UK BioBank. After looking at the DNA of more than 2-million people, they found that the genetic causes of depression could arise from around 100 different genes.


The genes responsible tend to affect the areas of our brains that are responsible for personality and decision making. Our brains are packed with nerve cells and we depend on them (among other things) for clear communication between different areas. When investigating the genetic causes of depression, the scientists found that the junctions between nerve cells in the frontal region of the brain were affected.

Arguably, this could mean that some of the common traits that appear in those suffering from depression arise from genetic defaults. For example:

  • Circular thinking patterns that affect decision making
  • Persistent thoughts that tasks aren’t worth doing
  • Irritable reactions to everyday situations
  • Excessive worrying that results in social isolation

Do these genetic causes alone result in the condition?

This research alone isn’t enough to establish that the genetic causes of depression are entirely responsible. Looking at other mental health conditions could lead you to believe that environmental influences need to exist alongside that genetic basis.

For example, in those who suffer from bipolar disorder, genes play a big role. However, research also shows that smoking cannabis, traumatic events, and living in a socially deprived area also act as triggering factors. They’re unlikely to result in bipolar disorder on their own, but they may spark the condition in those with a genetic basis for it.

As with many areas of mental health, the genetic causes of depression needs a lot more research. But this study really is an excellent start.

What should you do if a parent had depression and you’re worried?

Having a parent who suffered from depression doesn’t always mean you’ll experience the condition yourself. However, if you are worried it’s worth looking at some of the ways depression starts:

  • Living in an abusive environment
  • Living in an environment where there’s conflict
  • Death or loss
  • Taking medications such as beta-blockers
  • Major events, including those that are positive
  • Substance abuse
  • Serious illness

Although you can’t always change or remove the circumstances above, there are ways you can protect yourself. For example:

  • Removing yourself from abusive situations, if possible.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Abstaining from illegal substances and heavy alcohol use.
  • Getting adequate sleep.
  • Maintaining a strong social circle.
  • Remaining in a working or studying environment.
  • Seeking out therapies such as CBT.

Discovering the genetic causes of depression is a significant step forward. Hopefully, this research will lead to more effective modes of treatment.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.