Support from others in times of stress can alleviate the impact of genetic depression risk

Support from others in times of stress can alleviate the impact of genetic depression risk

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Summary: Social support during stressful times helps reduce the risk of developing symptoms in those with a genetic predisposition to depression.

source: University of Michigan

It’s always a good idea to reach out to support someone when they’re stressed. 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 buffering the risk of developing depressive symptoms in general, using data from two very different groups of people under stress: new doctors in their most intensive year of training and older adults whose spouses have recently died.

But the biggest effect was seen in those who had the most genetic variations that increase the risk of depression.

The paper uses a measure of genetic risk called the polygenic risk score, which is based on decades of research into what small variations in specific genes are associated with depression risk.

Compared with study subjects who had low polygenic risk scores for depression, physicians and widows with higher risk scores had higher levels of depression after losing social support, but also had more low levels of depression when they received social support during stressful times.

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

Genes, stress and social connection

“Our data show great variability in the level of social support people receive during these stressful times, and how it changes over time,” said first author Jennifer Cleary, MS, a doctoral student in psychology at UM who conducted her research. with senior author Srijan Sen, MD, Ph.D., of the UM School of Medicine.

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

Sen, who is director of the Eisenberg Family Depression Center and professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, adds that even as genetic research uncovers more than just DNA variations associated with vulnerability to depression, learning how those variations lead to depression is critical.

“Further understanding of the different genetic profiles associated with susceptibility 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.

“In the meantime, these findings confirm how important social connections, social support, and individual sensitivity to the social environment are as factors in well-being and depression prevention.”

Different populations, similar patterns

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

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

The other is the Health and Retirement Survey, based at UM’s Institute for Social Research.

Data for the new paper came from 1,011 hospital trainees across the country, nearly half of whom were women, and from 435 recently widowed individuals, 71% of whom were women, who had data from surveys conducted before and after the death of their husbands.

In the trainees, as Sen and his team showed in previous work, depressive symptoms increased dramatically (126%) during the stressful training year, which included long and irregular work hours—often in an environment far from friends and family.

Widowers and widowers had a 34% increase in depressive symptoms compared to their pre-widowhood scores. This correlates with past research showing that losing a spouse can be one of the biggest stressors in a person’s life, Cleary said.

Cross effect

The researchers then combined the depression symptom scores with each person’s polygenic risk score for depression and their individual responses to questions about relationships with friends, family, and other social supports.

Most of the interns have lost social support from their pre-internship days—which fits well with the common experience of leaving the place where they studied in 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 depressive symptoms later in the stressful internship year.

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

In contrast to trainees, some widowed individuals reported an increase in social support following the loss of their spouse, potentially such as friends and family reaching out to offer help or simply to listen.

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

But the biggest effect was seen in those who had the most genetic variations that increase the risk of depression. Image is in the public domain

There were also some widows who lost social support or experienced no change in support and whose depressive symptoms did not change. Cleary notes that it will be important in future work to consider the history of this group in light of the care they may have provided for a spouse with a long-term illness.

See also

Support from others in times of stress can alleviate the impact of genetic depression risk

The team also hopes that other researchers will study the 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 relative go through stressful times is to reach out and maintain or strengthen social connections.

This can have benefits for both the person under stress and the person receiving it, they note.

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

And although the study did not 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 problems.

About this news about genetics and depression research

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

Original research: 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 significant progress in identifying genomic variations associated with major depression, the mechanisms by which genomic and environmental factors jointly influence depression risk remain unclear. Genomically conferred sensitivity to the social environment may be one mechanism linking genomic variation and depressive symptoms. The authors assessed whether social support differentially affected the likelihood of developing depression across the genomic risk spectrum in two samples who had experienced significant life stress: 1,011 first-year physicians (interns) in the Intern Health Study (IHS) and 435 recently widowed. Health and Retirement Survey (HRS) participants.


Participants’ depressive symptoms and social support were assessed with questionnaires that were administered before and after life stress. Polygenic risk scores (PRS) for major depressive disorder were calculated for both samples.


Depressive symptom scores increased by 126% after starting internship in the IHS sample and by 34% after widowhood in the HRS sample. There was an interaction between depression PRS and change in social support in predicting depressive symptoms and in the IHS sample (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 a higher depression PRS associated with greater sensitivity to changes in social support. Johnson-Neyman intervals indicated a crossover effect, with losses and gains 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).


The results of the study show that individuals with a high genomic risk for developing elevated depressive symptoms in adverse social conditions also benefit more from caring for the social environment.

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