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Major depression (MD) is often characterised as a categorical disorder; however, observational studies comparing sub-threshold and clinical depression suggest MD is continuous. Many of these studies do not explore the full continuum and are yet to consider genetics as a risk factor. This study sought to understand if polygenic risk for MD could provide insight into the continuous nature of depression.
Factor analysis on symptom-level data from the UK Biobank (N = 148 957) was used to derive continuous depression phenotypes which were tested for association with polygenic risk scores (PRS) for a categorical definition of MD (N = 119 692).
Confirmatory factor analysis showed a five-factor hierarchical model, incorporating 15 of the original 18 items taken from the PHQ-9, GAD-7 and subjective well-being questionnaires, produced good fit to the observed covariance matrix (CFI = 0.992, TLI = 0.99, RMSEA = 0.038, SRMR = 0.031). MD PRS associated with each factor score (standardised β range: 0.057–0.064) and the association remained when the sample was stratified into case- and control-only subsets. The case-only subset had an increased association compared to controls for all factors, shown via a significant interaction between lifetime MD diagnosis and MD PRS (p value range: 2.23 × 10−3–3.94 × 10−7).
An association between MD PRS and a continuous phenotype of depressive symptoms in case- and control-only subsets provides support against a purely categorical phenotype; indicating further insights into MD can be obtained when this within-group variation is considered. The stronger association within cases suggests this variation may be of particular importance.
The UK Biobank contains data with varying degrees of reliability and completeness for assessing depression. A third of participants completed a Mental Health Questionnaire (MHQ) containing the gold-standard Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI) criteria for assessing mental health disorders.
To investigate whether multiple observations of depression from sources other than the MHQ can enhance the validity of major depressive disorder (MDD).
In participants who did not complete the MHQ, we calculated the number of other depression measures endorsed, for example from hospital episode statistics and interview data. We compared cases defined this way with CIDI-defined cases for several estimates: the variance explained by polygenic risk scores (PRS), area under the curve attributable to PRS, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)-based heritability and genetic correlations with summary statistics from the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium MDD genome-wide association study.
The strength of the genetic contribution increased with the number of measures endorsed. For example, SNP-based heritability increased from 7% in participants who endorsed only one measure of depression, to 21% in those who endorsed four or five measures of depression. The strength of the genetic contribution to cases defined by at least two measures approximated that for CIDI-defined cases. Most genetic correlations between UK Biobank and the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium MDD study exceeded 0.7, but there was variability between pairwise comparisons.
Multiple measures of depression can serve as a reliable approximation for case status where the CIDI measure is not available, indicating sample size can be optimised using the entire suite of UK Biobank data.
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