[Paleopsych] Psychiatric News: Familial Psychiatric Risk May Extend to Third Generation
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Familial Psychiatric Risk May Extend to Third Generation --
Arehart-Treichel 40 (3): 38 -- Psychiatric News
Psychiatric News February 4, 2005
Volume 40 Number 3
Clinical & Research News
Familial Psychiatric Risk May Extend to Third Generation
Having both a grandparent and a parent with major depression seems to
raise a child's chance of developing a psychiatric disorder. The
first signs of illness, however, may be anxiety, not depression.
Depression can run in the family, numerous studies have shown. None
of these studies, however, has gone beyond two generations, and only
a few have had a longitudinal design.
Now a three-generation longitudinal investigation also implies that
depression can run in the family.
The investigation was headed by Myrna Weissman, Ph.D., a professor of
epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University. Study results are
reported in the January Archives of General Psychiatry.
In 1982 Weissman and her colleagues selected 47 persons--some of whom
had experienced a major depression and others who had not--for a
study, then followed the psychiatric fates of those subjects' 86
offspring as they grew older. Then, as the offspring grew up and had
161 children of their own, Weissman and her team tracked their
psychiatric outcomes as well. By 2002, the 161 grandchildren were, on
average, 12 years of age.
The researchers then divided these 161 youngsters into four
groups--those with at least one grandparent and at least one parent
who had experienced a major depression (71); those with at least one
grandparent who had experienced a major depression but with no parent
who had (30); those with no grandparent who had experienced a major
depression, but with at least one parent who had experienced one
(25); and those who had neither a grandparent nor a parent who had
experienced a major depression (35). Grandchildren with at least one
grandparent and at least one parent who had experienced a major
depression had the highest rate of psychopathology, with 59 percent
having at least one psychiatric disorder.
In contrast, grandchildren with at least one grandparent--but no
parent--who had experienced a major depression had the lowest rate of
psychopathology, with 13 percent having at least one psychiatric
The other two groups fell between those two. Psychiatric disorders
were identified in 20 percent of grandchildren who had no grandparent
who had experienced a major depression, but at least one parent who
had. And 29 percent of grandchildren with neither a grandparent nor a
parent who had experienced a major depression had at least one
Moreover, when the scientists compared grandchildren who had a
grandparent with a history of major depression and a parent with a
history of severe major depression with grandchildren who had a
grandparent with a history of major depression and a parent with
less-debilitating major depression, 68 percent of the former had at
least one psychiatric disorder, whereas only 31 percent of the latter
did, a highly significant difference.
These results have clinical implications, the researchers said in
their study report: "Obtaining family history of depression and its
severity and impairment in previous generations should help to
identify persons at high risk for psychopathology at a young age."
Another noteworthy finding from the study was that anxiety disorders,
not depressive disorders, were the principal psychiatric disturbance
experienced by grandchildren who had at least one grandparent and
parent with a history of depression. Other studies have shown that
anxiety disorders in childhood often precede depression in
adolescence and young adulthood. Thus anxiety in these grandchildren
may herald later risk for depression, Weissman and her colleagues
wrote, and treatment of such anxiety might protect them from the
later development of depression.
In fact, as Weissman told Psychiatric News, they are considering
conducting a study to see whether treating anxiety in children from
families at high risk of depression might prevent the onset of major
"Nothing in these findings was surprising," Neal Ryan, M.D., a
professor of child psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, said
in an interview. "I think they extend what we have seen so
far...[But] this is a uniquely valuable study because of the very
long period of follow-up of these families, which now extends into
the third generation.... [Also] the earlier findings of this series
of studies has very well withstood the test of time."
The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.
An abstract of "Families at High and Low Risk for Depression" is
posted online at
Arch Gen Psychiatry 2005 62 29
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