With Christmas just around the corner, a time where people can face emotional difficulties, stress or isolation, a University of Sydney study of close relatives is set to shed new light on one of Australia’s most debilitating illnesses.
Depression affects one in six Australians at some point in their lives, and there are one million of us living with the illness right now. Depression causes a loss of over $3 billion in productivity every year, as well as misery, despair and sometimes even suicide.
While treatment and support services are much better than they used to be, it’s still not clear why people get sick in the first place.
Pioneering new research authored by Professor Lea Williams and being run by Westmead Millennium Institute’s Brain Dynamics Centre - a research affiliate of the University of Sydney - may help.
The study is based on the fact that first degree relatives of people with depression have an increased chance of becoming depressed themselves. While shared environmental factors may play some role, studies have shown that shared biology is also likely to play a part.
Research co-ordinator Anna Watters said the focus on relatives should help to disentangle the causes of depression from its effects.
"Relatives of people with depression can give us an idea of what kind of biological characteristics people with depression have, that are not necessarily connected to having the illness itself," she said.
"In this way we hope to identify characteristics that are risk factors, rather than consequences, of depression."
The study is also breaking new ground in integrating many information sources, including genetics, brain, thinking, personality and environmental factors.
Ms Watters said the research, which has been running since 2009, was close to producing results.
"We’re getting to the exciting time where we start analysing and putting together the work," she said.
"Ideally we would like to generate a well-rounded profile of what it is to be more vulnerable to depression and how the different factors interact together. I would love it if we could put together a really nice, well-rounded profile of what it is to be someone like these relatives, who is vulnerable to becoming depressed."
She said the study included so many different sorts of measures that researchers may be able to tease out subtle differences in brain mechanisms between at-risk and statistically normal populations - such as how people process emotions and the strength of different thinking processes under stress.
That information in turn could help us understand how depression develops, what type of person is likely to be at risk, and how early intervention could help.
The study still needs healthy people, particularly younger people aged between twelve and seventeen, who have a first degree relative (mother, father, sister, brother or child) with depression.
Participation involves one visit to the Brain Dynamics Centre at Westmead for tests of cognitive and emotional functioning, personality and lifestyle factors and an (optional) brain MRI scan.
If you can help or would like to participate, Joanne on 9845 8178 or via email at joanne.carpenter [a] sydney.edu (p) au