Australian scientists are calling for adults who have been treated for clinical depression to volunteer for the world’s largest and most rigorous genetic investigation into the illness to date.
The Australian Genetics of Depression Study is the local arm of a groundbreaking international scientific collaboration designed to detect genetic factors that contribute to clinical depression in order to develop better treatments, and, ultimately, find a cure.
One in seven Australians will experience clinical depression (commonly known as depression) during their lifetime. Clinical depression is the third most burdensome of all diseases in Australia (13.3 per cent). It is a complex illness that often occurs in families and is typically caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences.
Professor Nick Martin, the lead Australian investigator on the study and the head of the Genetic Epidemiology group at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, said researchers were seeking 20,000 Australian male and female volunteers aged 18 and above, who are currently being treated, or have been treated in the past for clinical depression, to shed light on the genes that predispose people to clinical depression, with the ultimate aim of developing new treatments.
“We are aiming to identify genetic factors that influence why various treatments for clinical depression are successful for some people, but not for others,” Professor Martin said.
“Identification of the genes that predispose people to clinical depression could revolutionise future research into causes, treatment and prevention of the illness.”
Prof Ian Hickie AM, who is a co-investigator and the co-Director for Health and Policy at the Brain and Mind Centre at The University of Sydney, said “we now understand from modern neuroscience, brain imaging, brain scans and other studies, that the brain changes during clinical depression. What we don’t understand, however, are the genetic causes in brain development that put you at risk of developing clinical depression.
“That’s why we need Australian adults who have, or are continuing to be treated for, clinical depression by a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist, and understand how disabling and potentially life-threatening this illness can be, to help us find the genetic causes.
“Participating in this groundbreaking study is free and easy. Volunteers simply complete a 15-minute online survey, and, depending on their responses, may be asked to donate a saliva sample.
“Study volunteers will be making a genuine contribution to better understanding, and helping us to solve this devastating illness.”
Study researchers will analyse saliva (DNA) samples to investigate and identify specific genes that may be associated with clinical depression, through a process known as ‘genome-wide association scans’ (GWAS). GWAS will allow researchers to look for genetic similarities and differences, which will help them to understand why some people experience clinical depression, while others do not, and why some people living with clinical depression respond to certain treatments, while others do not.
The Australian Genetics of Depression Study is being conducted internationally, with 200,000 participant samples required. Australia is aiming to contribute 10 per cent of the total study participants.
“We are aiming to recruit 20,000 Australian participants to the study, which would make up 10 per cent of the international requirement, within the next two years and may even increase this number depending on community support for this groundbreaking research initiative,” Professor Martin said.
“Finding genes associated with depression will help identify the causal biochemical pathways, and open new therapeutic opportunities to treat the illness.
“Furthermore, identifying which genes determine effectiveness, or side-effects of common anti-depressants can help doctors decide which treatment to prescribe for each patient.”
Clinical depression is a serious illness that affects physical and mental health. It is characterised by regular and intense feelings of sadness, moodiness or feeling low, and may last for long periods of time (weeks, months or even years), often with little or no identifiable reason.
Clinical depression severely affects the way people feel, think and react to general daily activities, such as eating, sleeping or working. By 2020, clinical depression is predicted to impose the second leading cause of world disability, and by 2030, is expected to be the largest contributor to disease burden.
In March 2008, after relocating from Sydney to Canberra to attend university, then-19-year-old Anna found it hard to connect with new people. For the first time in her life, the usually bubbly young woman was plagued by loneliness.
Four months later, after finally disclosing her feelings to her parents, describing how she felt like an observer of her life – watching her life pass by rather than participating in it – she visited a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with clinical depression.
“I felt completely hopeless, like I was a burden on my family and friends. I felt overwhelmingly sad. It was a grief I couldn’t get past,” Anna said.
Anna, now Sydney-based, spent four years working to recover from depression, and another two years battling intermittent episodes of depression.
“I could experience depression again, and it would be a big hurdle to overcome. But I’ve beaten it before, and I know I can beat it again.”
Anna is participating in the Australian Genetics of Depression Study and genuinely hopes her contribution will allow experts to unravel more answers to help combat depression.
“I definitely think this is a great study. I think people tread too lightly around depression, and there’s a common feeling that there isn’t a treatment or sufficient understanding of the illness. I think this study could benefit many people in the future,” she said.
To volunteer for the Australian Genetics of Depression Study, or to learn more, head to:
Free-call: 1800 257 179.
Those who qualify for the DNA phase of the study will be contacted by the QIMR Berghofer research team to confirm their willingness to provide a saliva sample. Next, they will receive a DNA collection and information pack by mail, and will be asked to provide a saliva sample. Participants will then be asked to return this sample to QIMR Berghofer using a supplied, pre-paid and pre-addressed courier bag via Australia Post.
Participant DNA samples will be bio-banked for immediate and future genetic analysis under strict confidentiality and within Commonwealth privacy and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines.
VIVA! Communications: Kirsten Bruce, 0401 717 566; Mark Henderson, 0431 465 004.
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