Journal of Genetic Counseling

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 204–216 | Cite as

Blue Genes? Understanding and Mitigating Negative Consequences of Personalized Information about Genetic Risk for Depression

  • Matthew S. LebowitzEmail author
  • Woo-kyoung Ahn
Original Research


Personalized genetic testing for vulnerability to mental disorders is expected to become increasingly common. It is therefore important to understand whether learning about one’s genetic risk for a mental disorder has negative clinical implications, and if so, how these might be counteracted. Among participants with depressive symptoms, we administered a sham biochemical test purportedly revealing participants’ level of genetic risk for major depression. Participants told that they carried a genetic predisposition to depression expressed significantly lower confidence in their ability to cope with depressive symptoms than participants told they did not carry this predisposition. A short intervention providing education about the non-deterministic nature of genes’ effects on depression fully mitigated this negative effect, however. Given the clinical importance of patient expectancies in depression, the notion that pessimism about one’s ability to overcome symptoms could be exacerbated by genetic information—which will likely become ever more widely available—represents cause for concern. Education and counseling about the malleability of genetic effects may be an important tool for counteracting clinically deleterious beliefs that can be evoked by genetic test results. Genetic counselors may be able to help patients avoid becoming demoralized by learning they have a genetic predisposition to depression by providing education about the non-deterministic role of biology in depression, and a brief audiovisual intervention appears to be an effective approach to delivering such education.


Depression Genetics Health beliefs Prognostic pessimism Biological explanations 



This work was supported (via grant number R01-HG007653) by the National Institutes of Health. The first author also received support from National Institutes of Health grant P50-HG007257. The funding agency had no role in the design of the study, the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data, or in writing the manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Matthew S. Lebowitz declares no conflict of interest.

Woo-kyoung Ahn declares no conflict of interest.

Human Studies and Informed Consent

All procedures followed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the responsible committee on human experimentation (institutional and national) and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2000 (5). Informed consent was obtained from all patients for being included in the study.

Animal Studies

This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

Supplementary material

10897_2017_140_MOESM1_ESM.docx (44 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 43 kb)


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Copyright information

© National Society of Genetic Counselors, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Research on Ethical, Legal and Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic and Behavioral Genetics, Department of PsychiatryColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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