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Psychology Professor Awarded Grant to Study Genetic Root of Psychotherapy Response for Depression

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posted: Tuesday April 16, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas — Depression, anxiety and many other crippling psychiatric disorders can be treated effectively with psychotherapy. Unfortunately, not all forms of treatment work for everyone — and finding the right fit often takes a great deal of time and work.

With a $100,000 NARSAD Independent Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, Christopher Beevers, associate professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, is exploring how genetic variation might affect response to psychotherapy for adults suffering from depression.

“The overarching goal is to understand whether genetic differences affect how people respond to psychiatric treatment,” says Beevers, who directs the newly established Institute for Mental Health Research. “This study will be an important first step toward knowing whether there is a genetic root of psychotherapy response among depressed individuals.”

Using saliva samples, Beevers and his team of researchers, including collaborators from the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, aim to document a connection between participants’ genetic makeup and change in depression symptoms following Web-based psychotherapy. This will be the first study examining the link between genetic variation and response to psychotherapy in the United States.

Many genes may influence how a depressed person responds to psychotherapy, Beevers says. For example, genes that influence serotonin — a neurotransmitter that influences sensitivity to the environment — may have a significant effect on how people respond to psychotherapy. People whose genes make them more sensitive to positive environmental changes may be more likely to benefit from psychotherapy.

Because the human genome is so complex, personal characteristics are shaped by thousands of genetic markers known as polymorphisms. In other words, individual genes often have a very small effect on a single characteristic or trait.

“What’s exciting about this project is that we’re not just looking at a single gene or a single genetic variant,” Beevers says. “We’re looking at the cumulative contribution of 500,000 polymorphisms. Our genetic code, for the most part, is really similar — but it’s the small differences that make us unique. This uniqueness might also influence who is likely to respond to psychotherapy treatment.”

Although this field of research — known as therapygenetics — is a young science, Beevers hopes it will eventually lead to personalized psychiatric treatment.

“We’re just scratching the surface, but at some point, we may test somebody’s genome to help decide which treatment would be right for them,” Beevers says.

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