Sources of individual differences in depressive symptoms: Analysis of two samples of twins and their families

Kenneth S. Kendler, Ellen E. Walters, Kim R. Truett, Andrew C. Heath, Michael C. Neale, Nicholas G. Martin, Lindon J. Eaves

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Objective: Self-reported symptoms of depression are commonly used in mental health research to assess current psychiatric state, yet wide variation in these symptoms among individuals has been found in both clinical and epidemiologic populations. The authors sought to understand, from a genetic-epidemiologic perspective, the sources of individual differences in depressive symptoms. Method: Self-reported symptoms of depression were assessed in two samples of twins and their spouses, parents, siblings, and offspring: one sample contained volunteer twins recruited through the American Association of Retired Persons and their relatives (N=19,203 individuals) and the other contained twins from a population-based twin registry in Virginia and their relatives (N=11,242 individuals). Model fitting by an iterative, diagonal, weighted least squares method was applied to the 80 different family relationships in the extended twin-family design. Results: Independent analyses of the two samples revealed that the level of depressive symptoms was modestly familial, and familial resemblance could be explained solely by genetic factors and spousal resemblance. The estimated heritability of depressive symptoms was between 30% and 37%. There was no evidence that the liability to depressive symptoms was environmentally transmitted from parents to offspring or was influenced by environmental factors shared either generally among siblings or specifically between twins. With correction for unreliability of measurement, genetic factors accounted for half of the stable variance in depressive symptoms. Conclusions: Depressive symptoms in adulthood partly reflect enduring characteristics of temperament that are substantially influenced by hereditary factors but little, or not at all, by shared environmental experiences in the family of origin.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1605-1614
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1994


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