23andME's Massive Gene Search Turns Up Clues for Depression


Founder of Health Rising and Phoenix Rising
Staff member
23andME used its massive genetic database to accomplish what no one had been able to do before - find the genetic underpinnings of depression. It turns out that to do this kind of work you need lots and lots of genetic data - and 23andME had it. Academia doesn't have the numbers needed.

Unfortunately nowhere have I been able to find what genes popped up. It was a strong result, though, because the same results popped up in three data sets.

Nancy Klimas is trying to get ME/CFS patients genetic data from 23andME and other sources into one data base as well.

“Everyone is recognizing that this is a numbers problem,” says Ashley Winslow, formerly a neuroscientist at Pfizer and now the director of neurogenetics at the Orphan Disease Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Winslow led the research effort. “It’s hard if not impossible to get to the numbers that we saw in the 23andMe study.”

Through its surveys, the company was able to locate more than 141,000 people who said they’d been diagnosed with depression. That is about 10 times more than the next-largest depression study ever carried out, says Levinson. DNA data on another 337,000 23andMe customers who reported no depression were used as controls.

“We hope these findings help people understand that depression is a brain disease, with its own biology,” he said. “Now comes the hard work of using these new insights to try to develop better treatments.”

The numbers needed are so vast that the federal government is getting into the act and building a million person database.

The need for ever larger databases is keenly felt by geneticists. At their urging, the U.S. government this year began implementing plans for a million-person precision medicine database. The genetic risk for depression is actually due to hundreds of genes, each having a very small effect. More on this in another post.


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