23andMe Tackles Depression, Bipolar Disorder

SEPTEMBER 18, 2017
Dava Stewart

Anna Faaborg, research communities, 23andMe23andMe, the consumer-facing genetics company, is undertaking a large study to gain knowledge of the underlying biology of major depressive and biopolar disorders.

The company is working in conjunction with the Milken Institute and Lundbeck to recruit 25,000 people who have been diagnosed with major depression, bipolar disorder I, or bipolar disorder II, and who are between the ages of 18–50 years old. The participants will provide saliva samples for testing, as well as complete a series of cognitive tests and surveys online over the course of 9 months.

“The hope is to gain a greater understanding of how genetics is related to brain functions such as attention, decision-making and reaction time. This knowledge of the biological underpinnings of disease could ultimately inform the development of novel, disease-modifying therapies,” says Anna Faaborg (pictured), manager, research communities, 23andMe.

This is not the first study on depression that the personal genetics company has undertaken. In August 2016, a study titled “Identification of 15 genetic loci associated with risk of major depression individual of European descent” published by 23andMe, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Pfizer, looked for patterns in genome-wide association study results and people with major depressive disorder (MDD). The study identified 5 independent variants from 4 regions associated with depression.

“Taken together, our results indicate the usefulness of a strategy complementary to intensive phenotyping for identifying common variant associations with phenotypically heterogeneous neuropsychiatric diseases,” said the authors in conclusion of the 2016 study.

The findings support a growing body of literature that links MDD to other neuropsychiatric diseases genetically leading the researchers to note that such research indicates “the pleiotropy of such risk-associated genes.”

The new study will build upon the results of the 2016 study, and will combine genetic information with cognitive tests and online surveys. Survey questions will include information about mental history, relevant diagnoses, treatments, medications, and family history. The goal is to enroll 15,000 people who have MDD and 10,000 with bipolar disorder. 

The study is designed to examine both the genetic and environmental factors that impact MDD and bipolar disorder. While the causes of MDD and bipolar disorder are unknown, there are clues that genetics play a role. Despite recent scientific advancements, more research is needed to help increase the understanding of the conditions and push medical discoveries forward.

A clearer understanding of how genetic and environmental factors impact MDD and bipolar disorders will allow the scientific community to pursue more targeted and individualized therapies. Although there is a growing body of research, the experts and 23andMe are unwilling to speculate on the possible outcomes of the current study. Researchers cannot anticipate where the data will lead or the analyses that will be performed at this early stage. No date for publication has yet been set, but participants will take multiple cognitive tests and be asked to respond to surveys over the course of 9 months.

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