Minimal phenotyping yields GWAS hits of reduced specificity for major depression

MDD Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Minimal phenotyping refers to the reliance on the use of a small number of self-report items for disease case identification. This strategy has been applied to genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of major depressive disorder (MDD). Here we report that the genotype derived heritability (h2SNP) of depression defined by minimal phenotyping (14%, SE = 0.8%) is lower than strictly defined MDD (26%, SE = 2.2%). This cannot be explained by differences in prevalence between definitions or including cases of lower liability to MDD in minimal phenotyping definitions of depression, but can be explained by misdiagnosis of those without depression or with related conditions as cases of depression. Depression defined by minimal phenotyping is as genetically correlated with strictly defined MDD (rG = 0.81, SE = 0.03) as it is with the personality trait neuroticism (rG = 0.84, SE = 0.05), a trait not defined by the cardinal symptoms of depression. While they both show similar shared genetic liability with neuroticism, a greater proportion of the genome contributes to the minimal phenotyping definitions of depression (80.2%, SE = 0.6%) than to strictly defined MDD (65.8%, SE = 0.6%). We find that GWAS loci identified in minimal phenotyping definitions of depression are not specific to MDD: they also predispose to other psychiatric conditions. Finally, while highly predictive polygenic risk scores can be generated from minimal phenotyping definitions of MDD, the predictive power can be explained entirely by the sample size used to generate the polygenic risk score, rather than specificity for MDD. Our results reveal that genetic analysis of minimal phenotyping definitions of depression identifies non-specific genetic factors shared between MDD and other psychiatric conditions. Reliance on results from minimal phenotyping for MDD may thus bias views of the genetic architecture of MDD and may impede our ability to identify pathways specific to MDD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalUnknown Journal
StatePublished - Oct 11 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutics(all)


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