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Genes that cause depression?
October 29, 2009 5:19 PM   Subscribe

A gene variant associated with serotonin transport (STG) , and normally associated with depression is strangely more prevalent, but also less likely to induce depression in collectivistic East Asian cultures. The study took data from 29 countries, and found a consistent trend towards this same genetic variant being strongly associated with episodes of major depression in Western cultures.
posted by mdpatrick (27 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
To clarify, when I paraphrase the article saying "less likely to induce depression" I'm specifically saying that even when the gene is present it shows a strongly reduced likelihood to induce the phenotype of major depression.
posted by mdpatrick at 5:20 PM on October 29, 2009


Why did you title the post after your name?
posted by Burhanistan at 5:29 PM on October 29, 2009


Well, obviously society and culture are going to have a huge impact on how people interpret their emotions.
posted by delmoi at 5:29 PM on October 29, 2009


Burhanistan: "Why did you title the post after your name?"

Yeah, that's really strange. Todd Lokken.
posted by brundlefly at 5:33 PM on October 29, 2009


How is that strange? If it's less likely to induce depression, then it's also less likely to negatively impact its own propagation through the community. And hence it would be more prevalent. Right?
posted by DLWM at 5:34 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, obviously society and culture are going to have a huge impact on how people interpret their emotions.

And yeah, people living in Asian societies typically are not alone as much as Americans, or live in single "nuclear" family homes. But there's so much generalization in that very short article. Anything more substantive that fleshes out the findings in a sensible way? This just seems out of place here.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:36 PM on October 29, 2009


Ok, let me be the first to say that other genes could also be different, which would in turn change the effect of STG.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 5:38 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Post translational modifications could be at work. 1Gene->1Protein dogma was debunked years ago, according to some geneticist friends of mine.

Why did you title the post after your name?

Mixed up the boxes, I'll bet. But that's how genetic mutation works too.
posted by telstar at 5:43 PM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Also -- and maybe I just don't know how to find this out -- how can we be sure that depression is as accurately diagnosed in a society in which negative personal feelings are seen as weak or irrelevant? Maybe somatized as a GI or fatigue disorder? I honestly don't know.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:43 PM on October 29, 2009 [5 favorites]


My bad science alarm bells are ringing. I have no doubt that East Asians express this short allele variant more than their Western counterpart, but what does this have to do with such abstract concepts of individualist and collectivist cultures? It just seems like one of those things that is too self-reflective to define. Sure broadly Asians are more collectivist than Europeans, but you could say that Italians and Irish are more collectivist than Scandinavians and so on.

Not even touching on the fact you're relying on the DSM for depression diagnostics. It is a real thing, sure, but you don't exactly produce depression antibodies.
posted by geoff. at 5:44 PM on October 29, 2009


I'm not buying this. Suicide rates in Japan and Korea are in the top 10 worldwide.
posted by wuwei at 5:51 PM on October 29, 2009


I changed the title to something generic but related to the real subject of this post
posted by mathowie at 5:52 PM on October 29, 2009


Thank you, mathowie.
posted by mdpatrick at 5:55 PM on October 29, 2009


Huh. So people from East Asian cultures will want to cook Brocktoon a simple meal. People from Western cultures want to cut into him... to tear the flesh... to wear the flesh...
posted by crapmatic at 5:56 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Here's a link to the actual journal article.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:09 PM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


To clarify, when I paraphrase the article saying "less likely to induce depression" I'm specifically saying that even when the gene is present it shows a strongly reduced likelihood to induce the phenotype of major depression.

This is fantastically interesting.
posted by jock@law at 6:24 PM on October 29, 2009


"A genetic tendency to depression is much less likely to be realized in a culture centered on collectivistic rather than individualistic values, according to a new Northwestern University study."

Does "realized" here mean empirically verified or does it mean diagnosed? If it means the latter well, um, no shit.

"Depression, research overwhelmingly shows, results from genes, environment and the interplay between the two."


A prime example of how unbearably ignorant most science reporting is. What biological phenomena doesn't result from "genes, environment and the interplay between the two"? Such an obvious, stupid, and meaningless assertion that it's actually making me depressed.

"Collectivistic nations were found to have significantly more individuals who carry the short allele of the STG."

If this is true it is indeed very interesting but entirely inconclusive. There isn't one singular gene implicated in depression or most psychiatric disorders. I'm going to have to read the study itself because this story is so terribly written but the more we learn about depression the more complex its etiology appears to be. Depression isn't induced only by variants in serotonin transporter alleles, it can be due to variations in enzymes that oxidize or recycle neurotransmitter in the synapse, a deficit or dysfunction in neurotransmitter synthesis, downregulation of post-synaptic receptors, etc. Further, it's meaningless to talk about "genes" for something without reference to which environment is regulating the expression of the gene. It's not so simple as "Gene X causes Y to happen" but "culture" can overcome it!

"Even more remarkably, they found, collectivistic nations, such as East Asia, where nearly 80 percent of the population is genetically susceptible to depression, the actual prevalence of depression is significantly lower than in individualistic nations, such as the United States and Western Europe."


"80 percent of the population is genetically susceptible to depression" is just a meaningless statement. It needs more information to be meaningful. And again, are we talking about diagnosis or empirically documented phenomena?

In the end this is just the usual case of well-intentioned science journalists being ignorant of what a study actually shows and leaping to broad, sensationalist conclusions that aren't backed up by the data or design of the (single) study.
posted by inoculatedcities at 6:46 PM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm not buying this. Suicide rates in Japan and Korea are in the top 10 worldwide.

They ain't commies, though. ("but also less likely to induce depression in collectivistic East Asian cultures")

It's the commies that don't get depressed becuase they are too busy engineering Obamacare and tunneling under Glenn Becks house.

It's that whole 'whistle while you work' thing.
posted by tkchrist at 6:55 PM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


My bad science alarm bells are ringing.

Do mefites have any other kind?
posted by hermitosis at 7:03 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


The thing is that it's probably also an issue of affluence, which muddies this study's conclusion even more. I think that people leading subsistence lifestyles would be less prone to depression as they face less decisions and have a clearer idea of what their problems are and what they need to do. If they are miserable, they have a good reason to feel as such because they are stuck in a lifestyle they don't like. As it's justified, they're likely to not call it depression. For many people in affluent nations, depression emerges as a result of too much responsibility and ambiguity about their own future, or feeling a lack of purpose. This happens to people with a lot of opportunity and wealth, especially as compared to people of developing nations, so it is irrational and thus a disease if it persists.

That's not to oversimplify depression, of course. For many people, it probably almost entirely chemical. But to explain the difference in trends of entire cultures, I think the concept of affluence affecting lifestyle is the big issue.

Barry Schwartz covered the idea of the paradox of choice really well in this TED talk. As affluence can buy choices, it is very relevant.

Granted, there is a lot of overlap between individualist and collectivist cultures in the issue of choice and affluence, as well.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:49 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


tkchrist: Are you happy citizen? Happiness is mandatory. Not being happy is treason. The computer Barack Obama is your friend!
posted by qvantamon at 8:07 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


The problem with this study is that it is trying to mix genetics with cultural anthropology. One's a science, the other a wacky mix of half-baked assumptions masquerading as a professional field of study.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:33 PM on October 29, 2009


My bad science alarm bells are ringing.

Me too.

1. How do yo define collectivist vs. individualist culture? This needs to be explicitly laid out.

2. How do you consistently diagnose depression across different countries with vastly different mental health infrastructure and cultural attitudes toward depressive behaviors?

3. As I suspected and a one google search confirmed, the link between the serotonin transporter gene and depression is still very much an open question. Follow up studies have not been able to replicate the finding of the original study.
posted by afu at 8:49 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well, this 2002 article ("Depression Simmers in Japan's Culture of Stoicism") doesn't support the suppositions of the "Culture of We" article at all, at least for Japan:

''Thirty thousand people commit suicide in Japan every year, but if we could diagnose them and treat them in time, that number would go down dramatically,'' said Tadashi Onda, a Tokyo psychiatrist, almost half of whose practice consists of depressed patients. ''I've never even heard of anyone specializing in depression, though. The bigger problem in Japan is that a stigma attaches to anyone seen as treating crazy people, and the status of psychiatrists remains very low.''
...

''In a culture of shame, the only thing to do about illnesses of the mind is to hide them,'' Dr. Onda said. ''They still carry a stigma here that can haunt families down through the generations. The best parallel I can imagine is the war, when tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers preferred dying in hopeless circumstances rather than surrendering -- because of the power of shame.''

I'm assuming there has been some progress since 2002, but this is a dramatically different landscape than the rosy portrait of supportive collectivist cultures successfully "buffering" against depressive episodes.
posted by taz at 4:14 AM on October 30, 2009


"Depression, research overwhelmingly shows, results from genes, environment and the interplay between the two."

A prime example of how unbearably ignorant most science reporting is. What biological phenomena doesn't result from "genes, environment and the interplay between the two"? Such an obvious, stupid, and meaningless assertion that it's actually making me depressed.


Actually, that sentence is *great* science reporting. The job of science reporting is to make ordinary guys understand what people are doing up in the ivory tower. Ordinary people think there is such a thing as "the nature/nurture debate". If you already knew that biological phenomena are always influenced by both, you aren't an ordinary guy, and the sentence wasn't written for you.

I would suggest that instead of getting depressed at the mild irritation that science reporting sometimes says things that are obvious to you, you should become crushed by the fact that most people are so disconnected from science that they need to hear it.
posted by Jpfed at 6:41 AM on October 30, 2009


Jpfed - Okay, fair enough point but what I meant was that the writer gave the impression that depression is uniquely the product of both genes and environment.

You're absolutely right that science journalism should be basic enough and provide context to allow non-specialists to interpret the story. It just frustrates me that the level of general knowledge is so low to begin with (a failure of our public education system, the reluctance many scientists have to becoming visible public intellectuals, and the fact that scientific knowledge has become so specialized) and that often the reporters themselves lack the background required to properly communicate the story's significance. Instead they have, like most journalists, an irritating affinity for the sensational that causes them to distort the meaning of scientific findings.
posted by inoculatedcities at 7:57 AM on October 30, 2009


The problem with the "interplay of genetics and environment" quote is that it is a pretty much meaningless statement. Nearly every disease is a result of those, as genetics and environment are pretty much everything there is, and few diseases emerge solely as a result of just the environment or just genetics.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:43 AM on October 30, 2009


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