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Major depressive disorder and neuroticism (Neu) share a large genetic basis. We sought to determine whether this shared basis could be decomposed to identify genetic factors that are specific to depression.
We analysed summary statistics from genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of depression (from the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, 23andMe and UK Biobank) and compared them with GWAS of Neu (from UK Biobank). First, we used a pairwise GWAS analysis to classify variants as associated with only depression, with only Neu or with both. Second, we estimated partial genetic correlations to test whether the depression's genetic link with other phenotypes was explained by shared overlap with Neu.
We found evidence that most genomic regions (25/37) associated with depression are likely to be shared with Neu. The overlapping common genetic variance of depression and Neu was genetically correlated primarily with psychiatric disorders. We found that the genetic contributions to depression, that were not shared with Neu, were positively correlated with metabolic phenotypes and cardiovascular disease, and negatively correlated with the personality trait conscientiousness. After removing shared genetic overlap with Neu, depression still had a specific association with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, coronary artery disease and age of first birth. Independent of depression, Neu had specific genetic correlates in ulcerative colitis, pubertal growth, anorexia and education.
Our findings demonstrate that, while genetic risk factors for depression are largely shared with Neu, there are also non-Neu-related features of depression that may be useful for further patient or phenotypic stratification.
Substantial clinical heterogeneity of major depressive disorder (MDD) suggests it may group together individuals with diverse aetiologies. Identifying distinct subtypes should lead to more effective diagnosis and treatment, while providing more useful targets for further research. Genetic and clinical overlap between MDD and schizophrenia (SCZ) suggests an MDD subtype may share underlying mechanisms with SCZ.
The present study investigated whether a neurobiologically distinct subtype of MDD could be identified by SCZ polygenic risk score (PRS). We explored interactive effects between SCZ PRS and MDD case/control status on a range of cortical, subcortical and white matter metrics among 2370 male and 2574 female UK Biobank participants.
There was a significant SCZ PRS by MDD interaction for rostral anterior cingulate cortex (RACC) thickness (β = 0.191, q = 0.043). This was driven by a positive association between SCZ PRS and RACC thickness among MDD cases (β = 0.098, p = 0.026), compared to a negative association among controls (β = −0.087, p = 0.002). MDD cases with low SCZ PRS showed thinner RACC, although the opposite difference for high-SCZ-PRS cases was not significant. There were nominal interactions for other brain metrics, but none remained significant after correcting for multiple comparisons.
Our significant results indicate that MDD case-control differences in RACC thickness vary as a function of SCZ PRS. Although this was not the case for most other brain measures assessed, our specific findings still provide some further evidence that MDD in the presence of high genetic risk for SCZ is subtly neurobiologically distinct from MDD in general.