23andMe to launch study exploring role of genetics in depression, bipolar disorders

By Jeff Lagasse

Personal genetics company 23andMe will be teaming up with the Milken Institute, a think tank, and pharmaceutical company Lundbeck to drive enrollment for a genetic study designed to grasp the underlying biology of major depressive and bipolar disorders.
The study will combine cognitive assessments with genetic data and survey responses to assess how genes influence brain processes -- such as attention, decision-making and visual perception -- in individuals who live with these serious mental health conditions.
In the United States alone, more than 16 million people are living with a major depressive disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, while nearly 6 million Americans suffer from bipolar disorder. The causes of these disorders are largely unknown, but there are clues: research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, for example, suggests major depressive and bipolar disorders are caused by a combination of genetic, biological and environmental factors. Other studies back up the hypothesis that there’s a genetic component involved.
“In August 2016 a landmark study was published by 23andMe, Massachusetts General Hospital and Pfizer, detailing the scientific connection between genetics and depression,” said Anna Faaborg, Research Communities manager at 23andMe. “In that study, we identified 15 genetic regions that were linked to depression. However, even with recent scientific advancements, more research is needed to help accelerate our understanding of these conditions and drive medical discoveries forward. We want to expand on the genetic component, looking at additional phenotypic factors of depression and bipolar, to hopefully gain a more holistic understanding of these diseases.”
To conduct this research, 23andMe intends to recruit 15,000 people with major depressive disorder and 10,000 people with bipolar disorder. The study is open to anyone aged 18 to 50 who has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, has been prescribed medication to treat his/her condition, lives in the United States and has access to the internet through a desktop or laptop computer.
“This study is the first to combine data from genetics, cognitive tests and online surveys at this scale,” said Faaborg. “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.”
As part of the study, consenting participants will receive the 23andMe Personal Genome Service at no cost, including more than 75 personalized genetic reports about their health, traits and ancestry. They’ll provide a saliva sample for DNA genotyping, and then complete nine monthly online cognitive assessment sessions each lasting between 10-30 minutes. Participants’ de-identified data will be analyzed for clues as to how genetics and environmental factors combine to impact their brain function and behavior.
Participants will receive regular updates about the progress of the study via email or newsletters. If there is a publishable result from the study, 23andMe will publish that information in a peer-reviewed journal and make it open access for all those interested in learning about the findings.
“At this early stage, we cannot anticipate where the data will lead us or exactly which analyses will be performed,” said Faaborg.
The study will build on 23andMe’s body of research in mood disorders. Its launch furthers the company’s genetic discovery efforts with research collaborations already established in Parkinson’s disease, lupus and inflammatory bowel disease, and more than 75 peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals