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Depression: biological causes or environmental factors?

15 March 2012

A great deal is still unknown about the causes of depression – some blame it on biology, others on the environment. However, it is highly likely that both have a role to play and that they also enhance each other. Researcher Dr Marije aan het Rot of the University of Groningen received a Veni grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to investigate the influence of both biological and environmental factors in the genesis of depression.

In research into the question of why people become depressed, biological causes are seen as one answer. Lack of a certain chemical in the brain, serotonin, is considered to be inherent to the depressed. Yet environmental factors could also be an explanation. Consider, for instance, loneliness due to a lack of good relationships with others.


It is a proven fact that depression is more common in some families than others. In her research, Aan het Rot manipulates the diet of family members of depressive patients in order to temporarily influence the serotonin levels in the brain. She then examines whether the participants function differently during social interactions: how comfortable do they feel when conversing with others, do they make any sarcastic comments to others, are they able grasp someone else’s feelings?

Social interactions

Aan het Rot expects that the effects of diet intervention on social functioning will be greater for those participants where depression runs in the family. Good social interactions are important when dealing with colleagues, friends and family. Relatively little research has been done related to people with family members who suffer from depression. With her research, Aan het Rot would like to contribute to new insights, with an eye to helping prevent depression in future.

Dr Aan het Rot’s research is conducted at the Clinical Psychology Department of the University of Groningen, in collaboration with the University Centre for Psychiatry (UCP), part of the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG). For more information (in Dutch) about the study, in which both people suffering from depression as well as their children, siblings and parents participate, please visit

Note for the press

For more information: Dr Marije aan het Rot, tel. +31(0)50-363 6630, e-mail:

Brain Awareness Week
This year, Brain Awareness Week is between Monday 12 March and Friday 16 March. The global campaign strives to increase knowledge and understanding of brain research. The progress made with such research not only benefits patients but also healthy individuals. Depression is one of the current research focuses of the Dutch Brain Foundation (Hersenstichting Nederland).

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.29 p.m.

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