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Genetics Determine if Exercise Can Alleviate Depression Symptoms

Patients suffering from depression might benefit from exercise, but only if their genes allow it, says a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Florida, and published in The Journal of Frailty & Aging.


Depression is a condition that affects more people than one would think. It is to be taken into serious consideration, given that it is indeed real (no matter how it might be dismissed by a part of society), and that it is challenging to treat. The new study, therefore, brings hope as it shows that exercise might benefit some of those affected.

According to the results, particular genetic markers that are associated with an increased risk for depression can also be used to forecast which patients might have their situation eased through exercise. Basically, males who carry two specific genes would display the greatest (positive) response to exercise. This calls for the possibility of mounting individualised treatment that would cater for carriers of these genes by incorporating moderate exercise in their treatment programme.

The approach taken by the team of researchers is a “personalised medicine” one when it comes to exercise, as it is with medication, explains study first author, Vonetta Dotson, assistance professor at College of Public Health and Health Profession’s department of clinical and health psychology. They believe that demonstrating exercise as a means of helping the patients because of their own specific traits will serve as motivation for them to practise physical activity.

For the purpose of the study, around 400 sedentary older adults were classified into two groups: one attending health education sessions, and the other receiving moderate physical activity classes. This went on for a period of a year.

While exercise was not found to have an overall significant effect on depression symptoms, it was shown to generate a significant response in men who carried a specific variation in the brain-derived neurotrophic (BDNF) gene; these subjects had a decrease in the symptoms of the condition. Furthermore, men with specific variations in the serotonin transporter gene (and who exercised), were able to have a greater capacity to experience pleasure, something which decreases greatly in patients of depression. This was concluded from analysing tests for depression before and after the intervention in conjunction with genetic testing that was done before the 12-month period.

It is to be noted that the level of BDNF expression is also restored with antidepressants. This means that physical activity yields similar effects, as per the genetic variation in the individuals.

If these results are confirmed (the study was only a pilot-based one), they might pave the way for a blood or saliva test that would determine whether a person affected by depression would find benefit in exercising.


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