The Clare Spark Blog

October 31, 2015

UCLA and the “Depression Grand Challenge”

Malcolm McDowell photo Robert Grant Archive

Malcolm McDowell photo Robert Grant Archive

“U,” the latest publication of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA (Fall 2015), has just proclaimed a new genetic research program that promises “The End of Darkness.” The cover shows a cartoon male escaping from a coiled space with his arms reaching toward the light, hands open to optimism. But without this intervention by geneticists, there is a dire warning, “By 2030 depression will be the single largest contributor to the global burden of disease.” And it will cost plenty, which may be the reason for the Latest Big Thing for us to worry about.

Since the most provocative sidebar to this lengthy piece makes a nod toward influences outside inherited genomes, the reader learns that environmental factors will not be neglected in this project:  “None of us live [sic] in a vacuum. …The way to think about depression is not only individually, but also how does the individual relate to the social space and how does the social space relate to the individual.” (my emph.)

Huh?! Social spaces are now individualized, rather than being identified as distinct and multiple, each demanding historical analysis? For instance, there is the family, the site of primary conditioning and emotional learning, but also schools that may bore the student or may be irrelevant to the development of critical thought. There are also churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. that either demand or undermine the “respect for authority” that Fox’s Eric Bolling (trained in a Jesuit school) lamented was being lost these days as police become targets of criticism rather than admired representatives of law and order. I have mentioned two of many institutions that affect our moods. These are nowhere enumerated or analyzed in all their variability, but condensed into the one and only “social space,” now likened to a person.

Worse, by ignoring the non-inherited predisposition to depression, anxiety, and anhedonia (the latter two conditions appear late in the article), this clearly fund-raising essay erased the many relevant contexts that interact with genes. But wait, I don’t want to be unfair to the project, grand in its results as promised. Its last paragraph somewhat repairs the prior sole emphasis on genetic inheritance: “Through dialog and scientific discovery, the Depression Grand Challenge hopes to lift the veil of depression. ‘It’s like being an explorer on a globe that nobody has traveled on before,’ says Dr. Martin. ‘We may not know exactly how the answers will affect the treatment of depression, but by understanding how the brain functions and changes with experience, we will understand how it can be changed in a positive way.’”

Is it time to take another look at  A Clockwork Orange? ( Or, give a listen to this Doris Day version of “I want to be happy.” (1961) (My deployment of this song is intended to be ironic, not celebratory. I am happy to think positively when conditions warrant it, but the world outside hardly warrants daily affirmations. Sorry.)


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