Support from others in stressful times may ease the impact of genetic depression risk

Summary: Social support during stressful times helps reduce the risk that people with a genetic predisposition to depression will develop symptoms.

Source: University of Michigan

Reaching out to support someone when they are under stress is always a good idea. But a new study suggests that support may be especially important for someone whose genetic makeup makes them more likely to develop depression.

The study shows the importance of social support in reducing the risk of developing symptoms of depression in general, using data from two very different groups of people under stress: new doctors in the most intense year of training and older adults whose spouses have recently died.

But the greatest effect was seen in those who had the greatest genetic variation that increased their risk of depression.

The article uses a measure of genetic risk called the polygenic risk score, which is based on decades of research into which small variations in specific genes are linked to depression risk.

Compared with individuals in the study who had low polygenic depression risk scores, physicians and widows with higher risk scores had higher rates of depression after they lost social support, but also had lower rates of depression when gained social support during stressful times.

The study, published in american journal of psychiatry by a team at the University of Michigan, suggests that more could be done to target social support to those who can benefit most.

Genes, stress and social connection

“Our data show great variability in the level of social support individuals received during these stressful periods and how this changed over time,” said first author Jennifer Cleary, MS, a psychology doctoral student at UM who is doing their research with senior author Srijan Sen, MD, Ph.D., of the UM Medical School.

“We hope that these findings, which incorporate genetic risk scores as well as measures of social support and depressive symptoms, will shed light on gene-environment interactions and, specifically, the importance of social connectedness in depression risk.”

Sen, director of the Eisenberg Family Depression Center and professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, adds that even as genetic research reveals more DNA variation related to vulnerability to depression, learning how that variation leads to depression is crucial.

“Better understanding the different genetic profiles associated with sensitivity to loss of social support, insufficient sleep, excessive work stress and other risk factors may help us develop personalized guidelines for depression prevention,” he said.

“Meanwhile, these findings reaffirm the importance of social connections, social support, and individual sensitivity to the social environment as factors in well-being and depression prevention.”

Different populations, similar patterns

The new study used data from two long-term studies that capture genetic, mood, environmental and other data from populations of participating individuals.

One is the Intern Health Study, which enrolls first-year medical residents (also called interns) in the United States and beyond, and which Sen directs.

The other is the Health and Retirement Study, housed at the UM Institute for Social Research.

Data for the new paper came from 1,011 interns in training at hospitals across the country, nearly half of whom were women, and from 435 recently widowed individuals, 71% of them women, who had data available from pre- and post-death surveys. of their spouses. .

In trainees, as Sen and his team have shown in previous work, depressive symptoms increased dramatically (126%) during a stressful training year that includes long, irregular hours of work – often in environments far from friends and family.

In widows and widowers, depressive symptoms increased by 34% compared to pre-widowhood scores. This correlates with previous research showing that the loss of a spouse can be one of the biggest stressors in a person’s life, Cleary said.

a cross effect

The researchers then analyzed depression symptom findings with each person’s polygenic risk score for depression and their individual responses to questions about connections with friends, family, and other social supporters.

Most interns have lost social support since the pre-internship days – which fits well with the common experience of leaving the place where they attended medical school and going to a new environment where they may not know anyone.

Interns who had the highest polygenic risk scores and also lost social support had the highest scores on measures of depression symptoms at the end of the year of stressful hospitalization.

Those with the same high level of genetic risk who did get social support, however, had much less depressive symptoms. In fact, it was even lower than peers at low genetic risk, no matter what happened to their social support. The researchers call this the “crossover effect”.

Unlike interns, some widowers reported an increase in social support after the loss of their spouse, potentially when friends and family reached out to offer help or just a listening ear.

But the crossover effect was also visible in them. Widows at high genetic risk for depression who gained social support showed a much smaller increase in depressive symptoms than their peers at similar genetic risk who lost social support after losing a spouse.

It shows two hands
But the greatest effect was seen in those who had the greatest genetic variation that increased their risk of depression. The image is in the public domain

There were also some widows who lost social support or did not experience a change in support and whose depressive symptoms did not change. Cleary notes that in future work it will be important to examine this group’s history in light of any care they may have provided for a spouse with a long-term illness.

See too

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The team also hopes that other researchers will study this same interaction of genetic risk, stress, and social support in other populations.

Meanwhile, Cleary and Sen say, the message for anyone going through stressful times, or watching a friend or family member go through stressful times, is to reach out and maintain or strengthen social connections.

Doing so can have benefits for both the person under stress and the person seeking it out, they note.

Reducing the level of ongoing stress one faces, whether at work, school, after a personal loss, or in family situations, can be critical.

And even though the study didn’t examine the role of professional mental health help, individual and group therapy is an important option for those who have developed depression or other mental health issues.

About this genetics and depression research news

Author: Press office
Source: University of Michigan
Contact: Press Office – University of Michigan
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original search: Closed access.
“Polygenic risk and social support in predicting depression under stress” by Jennifer L. Cleary et al. american journal of psychiatry


Polygenic risk and social support in predicting depression under stress


Despite substantial progress in identifying genomic variation associated with major depression, the mechanisms by which genomic and environmental factors jointly influence depression risk remain unclear. The genomically conferred sensitivity to the social environment may be a mechanism linking genomic variation and depressive symptoms. The authors assessed whether social support affects the likelihood of developing depression differently across the genomic risk spectrum in two samples that experienced substantial life stress: 1,011 first-year physicians (interns) in the Intern Health Study (IHS) and 435 recently widowed. and participants in the Retirement Study (HRS).


The participants’ depressive symptoms and social support were assessed with questionnaires applied before and after the life stressor. Polygenic risk scores (PRSs) for major depressive disorder were calculated for both samples.


Depressive symptom scores increased by 126% after starting the internship in the IHS sample and 34% after becoming a widow in the HRS sample. There was an interaction between PRS of depression and change in social support in predicting depressive symptoms in both IHS samples (incidence rate ratio [IRR]=0.96, 95% CI=0.93, 0.98) and the HRS sample (IRR=0.78, 95% CI=0.66, 0.92), with greater PRS depression associated with greater sensitivity to changes in social support. Johnson-Neyman intervals indicated a crossover effect, with gains and losses in social support moderating the effect of PRS on depressive symptoms. (Johnson-Neyman interval in the IHS sample, −0.02, 0.71; in the HRS sample, −0.49, 1.92).


Study results suggest that individuals with a high genomic risk for developing increased depressive symptoms in adverse social conditions also benefit more from stimulating social environments.

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