Symptom dimensions of major depression in a large community-based cohort

Psychol Med. 2021 May 19;1-8. doi: 10.1017/S0033291721001707. Online ahead of print.


Background: Our understanding of major depression is complicated by substantial heterogeneity in disease presentation, which can be disentangled by data-driven analyses of depressive symptom dimensions. We aimed to determine the clinical portrait of such symptom dimensions among individuals in the community.

Methods: This cross-sectional study consisted of 25 261 self-reported White UK Biobank participants with major depression. Nine questions from the UK Biobank Mental Health Questionnaire encompassing depressive symptoms were decomposed into underlying factors or 'symptom dimensions' via factor analysis, which were then tested for association with psychiatric diagnoses and polygenic risk scores for major depressive disorder (MDD), bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Replication was performed among 655 self-reported non-White participants, across sexes, and among 7190 individuals with an ICD-10 code for MDD from linked inpatient or primary care records.

Results: Four broad symptom dimensions were identified, encompassing negative cognition, functional impairment, insomnia and atypical symptoms. These dimensions replicated across ancestries, sexes and individuals with inpatient or primary care MDD diagnoses, and were also consistent among 43 090 self-reported White participants with undiagnosed self-reported depression. Every dimension was associated with increased risk of nearly every psychiatric diagnosis and polygenic risk score. However, while certain psychiatric diagnoses were disproportionately associated with specific symptom dimensions, the three polygenic risk scores did not show the same specificity of associations.

Conclusions: An analysis of questionnaire data from a large community-based cohort reveals four replicable symptom dimensions of depression with distinct clinical, but not genetic, correlates.

Keywords: Major depression; UK Biobank; comorbidity; polygenic risk scores; symptom dimensions.