Interactive Effects of Genetics on Depression

Psychiatry and Psychology CategoryIt is well known that depression results from the combination of many different factors. Environmental effects, such as stressful life events, are a trigger in many patients for the development of major depressive disorder (MDD) and the milder disorder, dysthymia. It is also true that the same major stressors will not produce depressive symptoms in some, pointing to underlying risk factors that make some more susceptible to depression than others. Researchers have attempted to identify a single gene that can be linked to MDD, and while familial clustering of depressive disorders is a common finding, single-gene inheritance patterns are not seen. Instead, patterns suggested that several genes are involved in depression, and a recent research study demonstrated the interactive effects of these genes on the disease.

DepressionSLC6A4 is one allele for the serotonin transporter protein, and individuals who inherit this gene are at a 4-times greater risk of developing depression following major life stressors. It clearly plays a role in depression susceptibility, but inheritance mapping does not demonstrate a clear, one-to-one ratio of this gene and the presence of depression. Other factors are clearly required. A second gene, BDNF, is also linked to mood disorders. Several different alleles for this protein exist, and patients who inherit a specific combination of the BDNF allele in combination with the SLC6A4 allele are at a significantly increased risk of depression.

The interaction of these two genes helps to explain why scientists have failed to find a clear genetic link in major depression. Instead of depending upon a single mutated gene, depression results from a multifactorial combination of several genes and environmental factors. Thus, depression cannot be predicted by single gene mutations, but increased susceptibility to MDD may one day be detectable by molecular testing for a combination of genes.

The effects of the SLC6A4 allele are thought to occur during brain development, affecting the way negative environmental events are interpreted. This sets the stage for an exaggerated negative response to life stressors. The protein produced by the BDNF gene may affect the way the serotonin receptor interacts with the cell, extracellular proteins or both.

Further elucidation of genes that play a role in mood disorders stand to have an important impact on mental health treatment. By detecting specific alleles associated with depression, molecular therapeutics can be developed that directly target the affected protein with minimal side effects. Genetic testing of at-risk individuals may allow for early detection and prevention of major depression. The ability to clearly identify and treat patients at a high risk for major depression will allow physicians to intervene before the disease reaches it’s full-blown form, instead diagnosing patients at an early stage and providing pharmacological and psychological treatment to prevent progression.


Pezawas, L., Meyer-Lindenberg, A., Goldman, A.L., Verchinski, B.A., Chen, G., Kolachana, B.S., Egan, M.F., Mattay, V.S., Hariri, A.R., Weinberger, D.R. (2008). Evidence of biologic epistasis between BDNF and SLC6A4 and implications for depression. Molecular Psychiatry DOI: 10.1038/mp.2008.32

  • Dan

    SLC6A4 is the serotonin transporter gene, not an allele. The alleles you are referring to are the “s” and “l” alleles of the serotonin transporter’s promoter region (written as 5-HTTLPR). Each individual carries two versions of the allele, l/l, s/s or s/l. The s version of the allele is shorter than the l allele and it is the s allele that is linked to a variety of dysfunctions (because it is less effective than the l allele).

    You use the terms “allele” and “gene” interchangeably, which is also incorrect, as an allele is a common variation in a gene, not a gene itself. When talking of SLC6A4 the term gene is the correct one. When talking about the part of the gene that varies, you want the acronym 5-HTTLPR (serotonin transporter gene promoter region).

  • Thanks for an interesting article. Despite the terminology issues noted above, your overall assertions — that we’re gaining ground on being able to identify genetically one’s susceptibility to depression in the face of stressors — is an important one.

    There’s an additional, less-studied level of contol that may be at play too: epigenetics. Epigenetics looks at the expression (frequency of use) of genes as they are transcribed to make proteins. That is, other specific proteins may attach to the DNA, turning up and down the frequency at which it is transcribed into RNA to then make the proteins such as the serotonin transporter discussed in your article. I’m not aware of any research yet into the epigenetics of genes related to depression, but there’s an interesting article on epigenetics in general in the current Scientic American MIND.

    Thanks for covering these topics.

  • Pingback: Can You ‘Catch’ Depression?()

Lindsey Kay, MD

Lindsey Kay, MD, is a medical doctor with training in pathology, and an avid writer. During his training, he worked on pre-clinical and clinical trials in a variety of laboratories related to alcohol effects on the brain, cancer diagnosis, and alternative medicine.

See All Posts By The Author

Do not miss out ever again. Subscribe to get our newsletter delivered to your inbox a few times a month.