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Monozygotic twins discordant for major depression: a preliminary exploration of the role of environmental experiences in the aetiology and course of illness

  • KENNETH S. KENDLER (a1) and CHARLES O. GARDNER (a1)

Abstract

Background. Genetic effects upon behaviour are pervasive. To what extent are the many correlates of major depression (MD) due to individual-specific environmental experiences versus genetic factors correlated with risk for MD?

Methods. From a population-based twin registry, we identified 72 female monozygotic pairs discordant for a lifetime history of MD and compared the affected and unaffected members on a wide range of putative correlates of MD.

Results. The affected twin differed from her unaffected co-twin on many variables, eight of which were maximally discriminating: (i) maternal protectiveness; (ii) conflictual parent–child relationship; (iii) low optimism; (iv) current stressful life events; (v) financial difficulties and a history of (vi) phobia, (vii) nicotine dependence; and (viii) divorce. A cluster analysis suggested three ‘environmental pathways' to MD characterized by: (i) childhood vulnerability and anxiety; (ii) acting-out and demoralization; and (iii) interpersonal difficulties.

Conclusion. Important precursors and sequelae of MD originate in environmental experiences unique to the individual and are not mediated through genetic factors or family-of-origin effects. Such environmental factors cause pervasive differences in monozygotic twins discordant for MD, especially in the areas of interpersonal difficulties, psychopathology, social problems and self-concept. These findings should be interpreted in the context of possible retrospective recall bias and the difficulty of distinguishing risk factors from sequelae in co-twin–control studies.

Copyright

Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Professor Kenneth S. Kendler, Box 980126, Richmond, VA 23298-0126, USA.

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