Depression is a poorly understood and highly medicated disease effecting almost 7% of the population at one point in their life or another. Over the past handful of months, researchers have been churning out tons of novel research into the genetics of depression [1,3]. These studies, which have been verified in a handful of different ways (but mostly concreted by the sheer amount of evidence), point to an overwhelming hereditary component for the disorder.
In understanding so little of it comes from a direct relationship with stimuli, we can begin to analyze factors of depression more accurately. Pulling the conversation about mental health from the realm of soft-science and into the conversation on modern genetics will, undoubtedly, provide more phenomenal discoveries in the future.
What Does Epigenetics Mean?
Epigenetics is the science of understanding the biological mechanisms that turn genetic markers on and off. That is to say, not all DNA in your body is activated. Certain genes will be turned on and off relating to the conditions of your life, or, in the case of birth, the life of your parents.
The website WhatIsEpigenetics  has a wonderful simile if you’re still not sure:
Here’s an analogy that might further help you to understand epigenetics. Think of the human life span as a very long movie. The cells would be the actors and actresses, essential units that make up the movie. DNA, in turn, would be the script — instructions for all the participants of the movie to perform their roles. Subsequently, the DNA sequence would be the words on the script, and certain blocks of these words that instruct key actions or events to take place would be the genes. The concept of genetics would be like screenwriting. Follow the analogy so far? Good. The concept of epigenetics, then, would be like directing. The script can be the same, but the director can choose to eliminate certain scenes or dialogue, altering the movie for better or worse. After all, Steven Spielberg’s finished product would be drastically different than Woody Allen’s for the same movie script, wouldn’t it?
How Does it Relate to Depression?
Researchers catalogued a number of genes that seemed to increase incidents rates of depression within one study. In another, decreased secretions of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other depression-related markers were correlated strongly with specific gene expression events.
Armed with a new, more accurate paradigm, it’s presumable that researchers will have an easier time finding more effective treatments for depression.
For more on this, check out these articles from the Irish Times and WhatIsEpigenetics. To learn more about how the attitude towards treating depression is changing, check out our article on mindfulness meditation and depression. Or, if you want to see why these changes are necessary, check out this article on Paxil’s ineffectiveness at treating depression.