Depressive Symptoms Predict Change in Telomere Length and Mitochondrial DNA Copy Number Across Adolescence

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2020 Dec;59(12):1364-1370.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2019.09.031. Epub 2019 Oct 16.


Objective: Several studies have found associations between a diagnosis or symptoms of major depressive disorder and markers of cellular aging and dysfunction. These investigations, however, are predominantly cross-sectional and focus on adults. In the present study, we used a prospective longitudinal design to test the cross-sectional association between depressive symptoms in adolescents and telomere length (TL) as well as mitochondrial DNA copy number (mtDNA-cn).

Method: A total of 121 adolescents (mean age = 11.38 years, SD = 1.03; 39% male adolescents and 61% female adolescents) were followed for approximately 2 years. At baseline and follow-up, participants provided saliva for DNA extraction, from which measures of TL and mtDNA-cn were obtained. Depressive symptoms were obtained via the Children's Depression Inventory.

Results: There was no association between depressive symptoms and markers of cellular aging at baseline; however, depressive symptoms at baseline predicted higher rates of telomere erosion (β = -0.201, p = .016) and greater increases in mtDNA-cn (β = 0.190, p = .012) over the follow-up period. Markers of cellular aging at baseline did not predict subsequent changes in depressive symptoms. Furthermore, including the number of stressful life events did not alter these patterns of findings.

Conclusion: These results indicate that depressive symptoms precede changes in cellular aging and dysfunction, rather than the reverse.

Keywords: adolescence; cellular aging; depression; mitochondrial DNA copy number; telomeres.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • DNA Copy Number Variations / genetics
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Depression* / genetics
  • Depressive Disorder, Major*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prospective Studies
  • Telomere / genetics


  • DNA, Mitochondrial