Researchers discover a genetic link between anxiety and depression

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Apr 16, 2021

Researchers discover a genetic link between anxiety and depression

Anecdotally, many people can attest to the way anxiety and depression often come together. But, now, a new study has discovered more than 500 genes that link the conditions together, in research that gives hope for future treatment

According to the World Health Organisation, 4.4% of the global population lives with depression, and 3.6% with anxiety. Often experienced together, anxiety and depression can feel like an unrelenting cycle. One may trigger the other, trapping us in spirals that can be difficult to escape.

Now, a new study from researchers at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Insitute in Australia has verified these experiences by identifying 509 genes that influence both anxiety and depression – confirming the link between the two mental health conditions.

Using genomic data from more than 400,000 participants in the UK Biobank, the team replicated and validated the genetic results in a group of 1.9 million people who had self-reported whether they had been diagnosed with depression or anxiety.

In total, the team found 674 genes associated with either depression or anxiety, noting how three-quarters of those genes were shared. Additionally, they identified 71 regions of the human genome that were not previously associated with anxiety – up from the six regions that had been previously recognised – as well as 29 new regions associated with depression.

Published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers believe that these findings could pave the way to a better understanding of these mental health conditions, and how to treat them.

“Not a lot has been known, until now, about the genetic causes of why people may suffer from depression and anxiety. Both disorders are highly comorbid conditions, with about three-quarters of people with an anxiety disorder also exhibiting symptoms of major depressive disorder,” Professor Eske Derks, senior researcher and head of QIMR Berghofer’s Translational Neurgeomics Group, said.

“It’s been observed in the past that people who have both depression and anxiety have more severe symptoms, have the illnesses for longer and are more resistant to treatments. We hope this study will help identify existing drugs that might be re-purposed to better target the genetic basis of depression and anxiety.”

This research is accompanied by news that researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine have found a biological basis for mood disorders, and have developed a blood test for depression and bipolar disorder – marking another step toward understanding the biological basis of mental health.

“Our research provides new insights into the genetic architecture of depression and anxiety and the genes that link them,” says Professor Derks.

“The better our understanding of the genetic basis of these psychiatric conditions, the more likely we are to be able to treat them.”

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