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New Study Challenges Association Between Serotonin Transporter Gene and Depression

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(Great Neck, N.Y. - June 24, 2009) — A study published in the June 17 issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, contradicts the findings of a much-celebrated 2003 report, which stated that genetic variation of the serotonin transporter gene, interacting with stressful life events, plays a role in predisposition to major depression.

The new study, conducted by Neil Risch, Ph.D., of the University of California at San Francisco and Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research, Oakland, and colleagues, identified 14 previous studies of the gene-environment interaction that met criteria for inclusion in the analysis. Of a total of 14,250 participants, 1,769 were classified as having depression; 12,481 as not having depression. The researchers did find that the number of stressful life events is associated with depression.

While it is generally assumed that psychiatric disorders result from a combination of genetic vulnerability and environmental exposure, the authors state that “few if any of the genes identified in candidate gene association studies of psychiatric disorders have withstood the test of replication and, to date, genome-wide association studies of psychiatric disorders have also had limited success.”

The original study, conducted by Avshalom Caspi, Ph.D., of Duke University, followed 847 people from birth to age 26 and found that those most likely to sink into depression after a stressful event had a particular variant of a gene involved in the regulation of serotonin, a brain messenger that affects mood.

The new report is provoking intense debate in the psychiatric community and the public media. NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Myrna Weissman, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that while “this is an excellent review paper, no one is questioning that,” it ignored extensive evidence from humans and animals linking excessive sensitivity to stress to the serotonin gene.

The consensus of opinions, including those of Dr. Caspi and the authors of the new study, was the urgent need for additional research.

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