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College of Pharmacy researcher uses genetics to find links between depression and MS

July 4, 2023 — 

When Multiple Sclerosis (MS) comes calling, it rarely comes alone.

“People with MS tend to have high rates of psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety,” explained Dr. Kaarina Kowalec, assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy at the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, naming just two of the most common comorbidities.

“For most people, when you find out you have MS, you’re at an age where you’re at the beginning of your career or you’re starting your family. The world is your oyster,” said Kowalec. “And then all of a sudden, you’re hit with a big diagnosis, and you don’t know if you’re going to be totally disabled tomorrow or 20 years from now. There’s so much unknown.”

For patients who have a mood disorder like depression alongside their MS – either as a pre-existing condition or one that develops as their MS progresses – it can compound an already difficult situation, both personally and medically.

“Depression has been found to be associated with a faster progression of disability,” Kowalec explained. For researchers like her, that makes it doubly important to learn as much as they can about the causes and connections between the two disorders.

That’s why she’s been exploring the human genome to try to understand which patients have the underlying factors that might contribute to an MS patient developing depression – hopefully before the situation arises.

In a recent paper published in Neurology, Kowalec and a team of researchers from Canada, the USA, and Sweden, analyzed genetic data from a large group of individuals with European ancestry to investigate the relationship between depression and MS.

They used information from individuals in Canada, the UK Biobank, and the USA, totaling 106,682 participants, with some having MS and others serving as healthy controls.

“What we wanted to do with this study was use genetics to see if we can identify people that might have a high risk for depression, hopefully before they have depression,” she said.

By identifying MS patients likely to develop mental health conditions, Kowalec said those patients can be targeted for an early intervention, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

“There is currently no cure for MS. There are treatments, and they’re getting better all the time, but in the meantime, people need to live their lives,” said Kowalec. “My focus is to find ways to help give people a little peace of mind, help prevent poor outcomes and keep their mental and physical health strong.”

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