Clinical depression conducts a full symphony of mischief on a person’s brain. A dampened mood, changes in blood chemistry, changes in cortical volume, impaired memory, and sleep disturbances make up some of the most commonly played behavioral and neurological symptoms. Actually, there’s over a thousand heritable trait markers of depression, says David Glahn at Yale University. He’s spent the last decade trying to track down their conductor.
His team has been the first to systematically rank all of these heritable trait markers for depression by their relevancy to the disease. By tracing the ranked trait markers back to their genes, he could decipher which genes have the most influence over the illness. To his surprise, RNF123, a gene not previously associated with depression, came out on top. On closer examination, RNF123 fits the bill as depression’s band leader. It manipulates the way neurons communicate in the hippocampus. That’s the area of the brain where anti-depressant drugs get down to work.
So what’s it matter? By pinpointing the gene behind depression, scientists have a new target for more effective anti-depressant drugs. Also, having an identifiable gene for depression could allow doctors to screen patients for susceptiblity to the illness. That way doctors could know to avoid depression-inducing medical procedures or to especially encourage counseling when the patient goes through a difficult life event.
Glahn admits his findings are still pretty preliminary. A team in Toronto has already replicated his conclusion that RNF123 plays a predominant role depression, but other groups will have to further replicate that. He’ll also have to show that RNF123 levels go up and down depending on the strength of a person’s depression symptoms. Regardless, I find this study exciting because it proposes a way of making empirical sense of the whole mess of traits that go along with a mental illness. While Glahn’s current paper may be a little too preliminary for a whole radio piece, I’d like to follow the progress of this line of research. I’d love to do a story on it when more results arrive.