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VCU study suggests that heritability of major depression is higher in women than in men

Some genetic risk factors for depression may be sex-specific in their effect

Virginia Commonwealth University

Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have found that genes contribute more strongly to the risk of depression in women than in men, and that there may be some genetic factors that are operating uniquely in one sex and not in the other.

In the January issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers reported that heritability of depression is higher in women - approximately 42 percent -- than in men, where it is approximately 29 percent.

"Our work, together with colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, represents the largest epidemiological study of depression in twins done to date. In addition, it broadly replicates what has been shown by our earlier work using the Virginia Twin Registry. In particular, we have shown that depression is a moderately heritable disorder, suggesting that genetic factors are important, but by no means overwhelming," said Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and human genetics in VCU's School of Medicine and lead author on the study.

The research team employed twin study models to evaluate lifetime major depression of approximately 42,000 twins, including 15,000 complete pairs from the Swedish National Twin Registry.

According to Kendler, the sex-effects are of two kinds - quantitative and qualitative. He said that quantitative sex-effects examine whether heritability is different in males compared with females, and if the overall importance of genetic factors differs between the sexes; whereas qualitative sex-effects examine whether the same genes are playing a role in males and females.

For example, Kendler said there may be genes that alter the risk for depression in a woman's response to cyclic sex hormones, particularly in the postpartum period. Such genes would impact a woman's risk for major depression, but would not be active in men because men lack the relevant hormonal milieu.

The Virginia Twin Registry is now part of the VCU Mid-Atlantic Twin Registry (MATR), which contains a population-based record of twins from Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.


This work was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health (MH-49492), the Swedish Scientific Council and the Swedish Department of Higher Education.

Kendler collaborated with Charles O. Gardener, Ph.D., from VCU; and Margaret Gatz, Ph.D., and Nancy L. Pedersen, Ph.D., who are affiliated with the University of Southern California and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

About VCU and the VCU Medical Center: Located on two downtown campuses in Richmond, Va., Virginia Commonwealth University is ranked nationally by the Carnegie Foundation as a top research institution and enrolls more than 28,500 students in more than 181 certificate, undergraduate, graduate, professional and doctoral programs in the arts, sciences and humanities in 15 schools and one college. Forty of the university's programs are unique in Virginia, and 20 graduate and professional programs have been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as among the best of their kind. MCV Hospitals, clinics and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University compose the VCU Medical Center, one of the leading academic medical centers in the country. For more, see

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