Genetic and environmental determinants of stressful life events and their overlap with depression and neuroticism

Major Depressive Disorder Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, Toni-Kim Clarke (Lead / Corresponding author), Yanni Zeng, Lauren  Navrady, Charley Xia, Chris S. Haley, Archie Campbell, Pau Navarro, Carmen Amador, Mark J. Adams, David M. Howard, Aleix  Soler, Caroline Hayward, Pippa A. Thomson, Blair Smith, Sandosh Padmanabhan, Lynne J. Hocking, Lynsey S. Hall, David J. Porteous, Ian J. DearyAndrew M. McIntosh

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Background: Stressful life events (SLEs) and neuroticism are risk factors for major depressive disorder (MDD). However, SLEs and neuroticism are heritable and genetic risk for SLEs is correlated with risk for MDD. We sought to investigate the genetic and environmental contributions to SLEs in a family-based sample, and quantify genetic overlap with MDD and neuroticism.

Methods: A subset of Generation Scotland: the Scottish Family Health Study (GS), consisting of 9618 individuals with information on MDD, past 6 month SLEs, neuroticism and genome-wide genotype data was used in the present study. We estimated the heritability of SLEs using GCTA software. The environmental contribution to SLEs was assessed by modelling familial, couple and sibling components. Using polygenic risk scores (PRS) and LD score regression (LDSC) we analysed the genetic overlap between MDD, neuroticism and SLEs.

Results: Past 6-month life events were positively correlated with lifetime MDD status (β=0.21, r2=1.1%, p=2.5 x 10-25) and neuroticism (β =0.13, r2=1.9%, p=1.04 x 10-37) at the phenotypic level. Common SNPs explained 8% of the phenotypic variance in personal life events (those directly affecting the individual) (S.E.=0.03, p= 9 x 10-4). A significant effect of couple environment was detected accounting for 13% (S.E.=0.03, p=0.016) of the phenotypic variation in SLEs. PRS analyses found that reporting more SLEs was associated with a higher polygenic risk for MDD (β =0.05, r2=0.3%, p=3 x 10-5), but not a higher polygenic risk for neuroticism. LDSC showed a significant genetic correlation between SLEs and both MDD (rG=0.33, S.E.=0.08 ) and neuroticism (rG=0.15, S.E.=0.07).

Conclusions: These findings suggest that SLEs should not be regarded solely as environmental risk factors for MDD as they are partially heritable and this heritability is shared with risk for MDD and neuroticism. Further work is needed to determine the causal direction and source of these associations.
Original languageEnglish
Article number11
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalWellcome Open Research
Publication statusPublished - 14 Feb 2018


  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Genetics
  • Neuroticism


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