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Scientists Identified a “Lack of Motivation” Gene
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Scientists Identified a “Lack of Motivation” Gene

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Researchers have identified specific genes and brain structures in mice that directly affect the number one symptom of depression -- lack of motivation. 

Genetic Research on Depression

Depression is the most widespread mental health issue worldwide.

Currently, treatment is largely trial-and-error, which puts patients on an emotional rollercoaster until doctors figure out which therapy gives relief. Certain medications work for certain patients, and others do not offer any relief but come with serious side effects. Other treatments work for a while, then symptoms return. 

With further research, these discoveries could lead to more targeted and more effective treatments.

Depression is a medical condition that can range from mild to serious to life-threatening. If you think you may have depression or depressive symptoms, call your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

Depression: symptoms & definition.

Diagnosing Depression

Depression is difficult to diagnose. Symptoms are self-reported, so one person may characterize symptoms as severe, while another person may be able to hide or minimize the same symptoms. 

The main reference for mental health diagnosis, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defines Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) as having five or more of the following symptoms for at least two weeks:

  • Sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • Lacking pleasure in most activities
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue and listlessness
  • Guilt
  • Attention trouble
  • Thoughts of self-harm (if you’re thinking of harming yourself, stop reading and call your doctor immediately)

There’s no blood test, thermometer, gadget or gizmo that can give an accurate measure of the above symptoms. That’s why depression is so difficult for health professionals to navigate. 

If humans have similar genetic markers and brain cell configurations that the study mice had, further research may uncover more genes and brain structures associated with different symptoms. That could lead to better diagnosis and targeted therapies for specific symptoms.

Do your genes predict your future?

Depression Studies on Mice

If the rodent study translates to people, researchers may soon identify the human version of the low motivation or depression gene. If you have it, don’t worry -- it doesn’t mean you’re destined for depression, no matter what. Just because you have a gene doesn’t mean the gene will be expressed, or “on.” For example, there’s a good chance that you carry genes for more than one hair color or eye color. Before birth, your body picks one to express. 

Some of your genes stay completely dormant until something in your environment activates them, and they can go back to the inactive state once the trigger goes away. For example, in this study, the researchers noticed changes in the lateral habenula cells following a stressful period. Before stress, these cells showed normal activity. The stress turned a gene “on” that made the cells overfire. 

There are a lot of lifestyle factors that influence whether or not certain genes will turn on or off. If you’re feeling down, adding healthy, nourishing foods, movement, and some time outside may give you the lift you need. Taking active steps to manage your stress, like a yoga session or meditation, could prevent a downward spiral.

Depression Gene Influencers

How to increase your motivation.

There are things you can do to elevate your motivation when you’re feeling blah. It’s an uphill battle at first, but it gets easier and easier as you go. These steps won’t cure true depression, but they may be just the kickstart you need to get out of your funk.

  • Break up a task. When you have something you know you need to do but you can’t find the motivation to do it, break it up into small, bite-sized pieces. 
  • Start. Sometimes simply starting removes all the mental barriers that come with a daunting task. Commit to doing one two-minute step of your goal. If you want to deep-clean your kitchen, just grab a wet cloth and wipe a few cabinets. If you need to do your taxes, commit to filling out the easy stuff like name, address, and birthdate. There’s a good chance you’ll go onto the next step, and then the next. 
  • Plan your procrastination. Decide that when you procrastinate on Activity A, you’ll distract yourself with Activity B. The kicker -- Activity B has to be productive. Sometimes it helps to let your brain switch gears, and if your play the distraction game right, you’ll get closer and closer to where you want to be. 
  • Give fear a persona. Even give it a name. That way, you can thank Herbie that you’re perfectly safe and that you don’t need him right now. 
  • Exercise. A short sweat session increases testosterone in men and women, which is associated with motivation and confidence. Be sure to include resistance, even just using your bodyweight. 

Depression Feelings are Temporary

Gene therapy may show promise as a future treatment. If you’re in a “down” period now, remind yourself that this feeling is temporary. Reach out for the help you need, whether that means talking out a situation with a trusted friend, or calling your doctor for professional clinical help. Sometimes, just knowing that better days are ahead is enough to take baby steps toward physical and emotional healing.

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