Scientists have had a tricky time figuring out exactly what causes depression – although it is clear that genetics play a role.
Now, a group of researchers at Yale University say they have identified a key genetic trigger of depression. The gene, MKP-1, might be a central contributor to the onset of clinical depression, according to a new study published this week in the journal Nature Medicine.
“This could be a primary cause, or at least a major contributing factor, to the signaling abnormalities that lead to depression,” said Ronald S. Duman, professor of psychology and pharmacology at Yale, and senior author of the study.
Duman and his team conducted whole genome scans on post-mortem brain tissue samples from 21 people who had been diagnosed with depression, and compared them to the genes of 18 people who had not been diagnosed with the disorder. They found the MKP-1 gene was twice as active in the brain tissues of the depressed individuals.
The findings were particularly exciting for the scientists because they show how the MKP-1 gene triggers depression. Importantly, Duman said, the findings could lead to a whole new class of prescription antidepressants.
Symptoms of depression vary widely from person to person, and scientists believe a broad array of physiological processes are involved. That explains why most people respond differently to the most commonly prescribed antidepressants.
“There is a significant limit and unmet need for treating depression,” Duman told the Yale Daily News. “Only one-third of patients respond to the first antidepressant prescribed and only two-thirds of people respond to available medication.”
In the meantime, depression affects 16 percent of Americans annually and costs the United States $100 billion a year.
“Depression used to be viewed as a weakness not an illness,” Duman also told the Yale Daily News. “Understanding the biochemistry and molecular and cellular changes demonstrates this is a biological illness that has to be treated and taken care of.”
Are you at risk for depression? Here are some symptoms to look for according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
- Irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
- Reduced sex drive
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping
- Changes in appetite — depression often causes decreased appetite and weight loss, but in some people it causes increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Agitation or restlessness — for example, pacing, hand-wringing or an inability to sit still
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration
- Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy — even small tasks may seem to require a lot of effort
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or blaming yourself when things aren’t going right
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
- Crying spells for no apparent reason
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
For some people, depression symptoms are so severe that it’s obvious something isn’t right. Others feel generally miserable or unhappy without really knowing why.
When to see a doctor
If you feel depressed, make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as you can. Depression symptoms may not get better on their own — and depression may get worse if it isn’t treated. Untreated depression can lead to other mental and physical health problems or problems in other areas of your life. Feelings of depression can also lead to suicide.
If you’re reluctant to seek treatment, talk to a friend or loved one, a health care professional, a faith leader, or someone else you trust.
Photo courtesy of Sasha Wolff