The genetics of depression and antidepressant response

The question

Women with columns of data across her faceBy combining DNA and NHS health records, can we obtain data that is reliable enough for ‘big data’ research into depression?

Principal Investigator: Professor Andrew McIntosh


Causes and consequences of depression

A pile of confetti, where each piece is the 'big data'Over the last 5 years, carefully designed genetic studies have helped researchers understand some of the causes and consequences of depression and progressed our understanding of why some patients respond well to anti-depressants, while others do not [1, 2, 3, 4]. 

Unfortunately, this type of research has been curtailed by a lack of data.

Researchers believe that ‘big data’ approaches could help us identify who is at highest risk of developing depression and which drug/therapy they are most likely to respond to. Big data could also help researchers identify new pathways and targets for future drug development.


Why Scotland?

Scottish FlagElectronic Health Record (eHR) data for common mental disorders is available for >95% of the Scottish population (and similar records are available for 22 million individuals in England). For many of these people, we have permission to contact them and ask them about their mental health history and whether they would be willing to give a blood or saliva sample for DNA analysis. 

Additional DNA data is also becoming available in Scotland through the SHARE database (  They currently hold data on 180,000 individuals and have the ambition to sign-up 500 thousand people by 2022.

A further half-a-million individuals are part of existing research cohorts [long term studies] such as Generation Scotland or UK Biobank. These well-structured and carefully designed research programmes have collected high-quality data on mental health status throughout life.


Research Planned

Increase the available data

Many DNA helix in jars lined up behind one anotherWe believe that one approach to obtaining this high volume of data is to increase the number of people in Scotland who have had their DNA sequenced and combine this with NHS health records.

Check that this approach is valid

By doing this on a medium-sized scale and comparing our results to previous research studies (which were specifically designed to study depression), we hope to show the value of simple measures used at scale (e.g. prescription records which show evidence of switching anti-depressants).

If we can provide evidence that this approach works, it could open-up this huge data-set for future mental health research.

Create the Infrastructure

Our project will put in place some of the infrastructure, resources and administrative procedures that would be needed for this form of big data research in the future.


NHS Scotland logoOur vision

Our ultimate vision is to develop a data science platform where every NHS patient is a research participant.



  1. Carter GC et al. Depress Anxiety 29, 340-354, (2012).
  2. Allen NE et al. Sci Transl Med 6, 224ed224, (2014).
  3. Smith BH et al. Int J Epidemiol 42, 689-700, (2013).
  4. Fabbri C et al. The pharmacogenomics journal, (2017).

Useful Links

Related Videos


Professor Andrew McIntosh
Cohort studies

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David Porteous
Generation Scotland - Next Generation

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David Batty
Living Longer in Scotland

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