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Men and women have opposite genetic alterations in depression

March 13, 2018

Philadelphia, March 13, 2018 - Men and women with major depressive disorder (MDD) have opposite changes in the expression of the same genes, according to a new postmortem brain study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Toronto, Canada. The findings, published in Biological Psychiatry, indicate distinct pathology, and suggest that men and women may need different types of treatment for depression.

"This important paper highlights the divergent molecular mechanisms contributing to depression in men and women. It challenges the assumption that a similar diagnosis across people has the same biology," said John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

This is the first time that this unique opposing pathology has been reported. "While researchers have been examining the brains of depressed subjects for decades, many of these studies included only men," said lead author Marianne Seney, PhD, of University of Pittsburgh. This is despite the differences in MDD between men and women--women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with MDD, and report greater illness severity and different types of symptoms than men.

The study combined eight published datasets (four in men and four in women) in a meta-analysis. Senior author Etienne Sibille, PhD, of CAMH, and colleagues analyzed gene expression levels, which indicate how much protein a gene is producing, in postmortem brain tissue of 50 people with MDD (26 men and 24 women) and the same number of unaffected men and women for comparison.

Most of the genes that had altered expression were changed in only men or only women. However, genes that were altered in both men and women were changed in opposite directions. Women had increased expression of genes affecting synapse function, whereas men had decreased expression of the same genes. Women had decreases in genes affecting immune function, whereas men had increased expression of these genes. Additionally, the researchers applied their methods to data from a different set of subjects and replicated the opposing changes.

The analysis included three different brain regions that regulate mood--the anterior cingulate cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and amygdala--and that are dysfunctional in MDD. The opposite changes in gene expression were specific to the different brain regions. So if women had increased expression of a particular gene in one region and decreased in another, men showed just the opposite.

Because the study used postmortem brain tissue, the effect of the opposite molecular signatures on how MDD affects men and women differently could not be studied. But the findings support sex-specific pathology in the disorder.

"These results have significant implications for development of potential novel treatments and suggest that these treatments should be developed separately for men and women," said Dr. Seney. For example, in the paper the authors suggest that new treatments targeting the sex-specific pathology in MDD might suppress immune function in men, or boost its function in women.
Notes for editors
The article is "Opposite molecular signatures of depression in men and women," by Marianne L. Seney, Zhiguang Huo, Kelly Cahill, Leon French, Rachel Puralewski, Joyce Zhang, Ryan W. Logan, George Tseng, David A. Lewis, and Etienne Sibille ( It appears inBiological Psychiatry, published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Rhiannon Bugno at or +1 214 648 0880. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Ashley Trentrock at or +1 412 529 9092, or Sean O'Malley at or +416 970 8243.

The authors' affiliations and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, MD, is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, Chief of Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

AboutBiological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 6th out of 142 Psychiatry titles and 10th out of 258 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2016 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 11.412.

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a global information analytics business that helps institutions and professionals advance healthcare, open science, and improve performance for the benefit of humanity. Elsevier provides digital solutions and tools in the areas of strategic research management, R&D performance, clinical decision support, and professional education; including ScienceDirect, Scopus, SciVal, ClinicalKey and Sherpath. Elsevier publishes over 2,500 digitized journals, including The Lancet and Cell, more than 35,000 e-book titles and many iconic reference works, including Gray's Anatomy. Elsevier is part of RELX Group, a global provider of information and analytics for professionals and business customers across industries.


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