Early family experience can reverse the effects of genes, UCLA psychologists report

October 09, 2006

Early family experience can reverse the effect of a genetic variant linked to depression, UCLA researchers report in the current issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Among children from supportive, nurturing families, those with the short form of the serotonin transporter gene (known as 5-HTTLPR) had a significantly reduced risk for depression, found the UCLA team, under the direction of Shelley E. Taylor, UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and an expert in the field of stress and health. The research team also found that among children from emotionally cold, unsupportive homes marked by conflict and anger, those with the short form of the 5-HTTLPR gene were at greater risk for depression, as some previous research has also shown.

The 118 young adult men and women who participated in the study completed assessments of depression, early family environment and current stress. They were asked, for example, how often they had been loved and cared for, shown physical affection or insulted and sworn at by their families. Saliva samples were used to determine if the participants' standing on the 5-HTTLPR had two short alleles (s/s), a short and a long allele (s/l) or two long alleles (l/l) for the serotonin transporter gene. (An allele is any of several forms of a gene.)

The research showed that a person's likelihood of developing symptoms of depression was not predicted by the particular combination of alleles alone; rather, it was the combination of the person's environment and genetic variant s/s that determined whether the person experienced symptoms of depression, said Taylor, principal investigator on the study.

Among the study's implications is that the short form of the 5-HTTLPR is "highly responsive to environmental influence" and, rather than predicting risk for depression, its effects vary substantially, depending on how supportive the external environment is, Taylor said.

These conclusions were bolstered by parallel evidence collected by the team showing that a supportive environment reduced the risk of depression among those with the s/s form of the 5-HTTLPR gene, while those experiencing a great deal of stress in their lives had an increased risk of depressive symptoms if they had the s/s variant of the gene. "Genes are not destiny," Taylor said. "Although some genes confer particular risks, others, such as variants of the 5-HTTLPR, are clearly highly responsive to input from the early and current environment. That means, among other conclusions, that there is an important role that parents and even friends can play in providing protection against the risk of depression that stress can confer." The study adds a new component to evidence that the environment can regulate biology and steer the effects of genetic predispositions.

"It indicates just how important a loving and caring family can be," said Baldwin Way, a co-investigator on the project. The other members of the research team, from UCLA's department of psychology and department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, are William Welch, Clayton Hilmert, Barbara Lehman and Naomi Eisenberger.

Taylor was honored Oct. 7 with the inaugural Clifton Strengths Prize, which recognizes the life and work of Donald O. Clifton, past chairman of The Gallup Organization. The prize, which will be presented every two years, recognizes groundbreaking theory, research and practice in "strengths-based psychology." Clifton's philosophy was for people to focus on what was positive and right with themselves and to build on their strengths to achieve their full potential, Gallup said. Taylor's research showing how a supportive environment reverses the impact of a genetic risk factor is an example of the work for which she was honored.

The research published in Biological Psychiatry was federally funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Science Foundation, with additional funding from and UCLA's Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.

In previous research, Taylor and UCLA colleagues, including psychology professor Rena Repetti, reported strong evidence that children who grow up in risky families often suffer lifelong health problems, including cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety disorders, as well as early death (Psychological Bulletin, March 2002, Vol. 128, No. 2, pp. 330-366). A child's genetic predispositions may be exacerbated by the family environment, and this combination can lead to the faster development of health problems in risky families, which may be more debilitating than they would be in a more nurturing family, the researchers found.
-end-
About UCLA

California's largest university, UCLA enrolls approximately 38,000 students per year and offers degrees from the UCLA College of Letters and Science and 11 professional schools in dozens of varied disciplines. UCLA consistently ranks among the top five universities and colleges nationally in total research-and-development spending, receiving more than $820 million a year in competitively awarded federal and state grants and contracts. For every $1 state taxpayers invest in UCLA, the university generates almost $9 in economic activity, resulting in an annual $6 billion economic impact on the Greater Los Angeles region. The university's health care network treats 450,000 patients per year. UCLA employs more than 27,000 faculty and staff, has more than 350,000 living alumni and has been home to five Nobel Prize recipients.

University of California - Los Angeles

Related Depression Articles from Brightsurf:

Children with social anxiety, maternal history of depression more likely to develop depression
Although researchers have known for decades that depression runs in families, new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York, suggests that children suffering from social anxiety may be at particular risk for depression in the future.

Depression and use of marijuana among US adults
This study examined the association of depression with cannabis use among US adults and the trends for this association from 2005 to 2016.

Maternal depression increases odds of depression in offspring, study shows
Depression in mothers during and after pregnancy increased the odds of depression in offspring during adolescence and adulthood by 70%.

Targeting depression: Researchers ID symptom-specific targets for treatment of depression
For the first time, physician-scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have identified two clusters of depressive symptoms that responded to two distinct neuroanatomical treatment targets in patients who underwent transcranial magnetic brain stimulation (TMS) for treatment of depression.

A biological mechanism for depression
Researchers report that in depressed individuals there are increased amounts of an unmodified structural protein, called tubulin, in lipid rafts compared with non-depressed individuals.

Depression in adults who are overweight or obese
In an analysis of primary care records of 519,513 UK adults who were overweight or obese between 2000-2016 and followed up until 2019, the incidence of new cases of depression was 92 per 10,000 people per year.

Why stress doesn't always cause depression
Rats susceptible to anhedonia, a core symptom of depression, possess more serotonin neurons after being exposed to chronic stress, but the effect can be reversed through amygdala activation, according to new research in JNeurosci.

Which comes first: Smartphone dependency or depression?
New research suggests a person's reliance on his or her smartphone predicts greater loneliness and depressive symptoms, as opposed to the other way around.

Depression breakthrough
Major depressive disorder -- referred to colloquially as the 'black dog' -- has been identified as a genetic cause for 20 distinct diseases, providing vital information to help detect and manage high rates of physical illnesses in people diagnosed with depression.

CPAP provides relief from depression
Researchers have found that continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can improve depression symptoms in patients suffering from cardiovascular diseases.

Read More: Depression News and Depression Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.