Is depression inherited? Acquired? Or both?

Dr. Wade Berrettini, in the clinical neurogenetics branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, is involved in the search for a genetic marker or actual gene of depressive mood disorders, a medical condition that affects an estimated 10 million Americans. In one recently completed study, he and former NIMH colleague Dr. John Nurnburger, now director of psychiatric research at the University of Indiana, showed that healthy children of manic-depressive parents demonstrated a physiological sensitivity to light that is normally seen only in manic-depressive patients. (Light in these people inhibits the production of melatonin by the pineal gland.) It may turn out to be a marker for depressive illness, Berrettini said, "but we won't know a thing for about 10 years when we see if the adolescents with the sensitivity get sick."

Meanwhile, the scientists are embarking on a new search for a manic-depressive gene. One such gene, identified in a group of Amish patients a few months ago, "was a disappointment," Berrettini said, "because it appears to be a form of manic-depressive illness that doesn't have very much to do with the illness most of the general population suffers."

Still, he said, "we're on the track of a few other genes, but we need families with lots of ill members" for further research.

Getting Help

Volunteers for this study or healthy adolescents in families with manic-depressive illness may call 469-3465 for information.