Genetic predisposition to depression and inflammation impacts symptom burden and survival in patients with head and neck cancer: A longitudinal study

J Affect Disord. 2023 Jun 15;331:149-157. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2023.03.007. Epub 2023 Mar 21.


Objective: The primary purpose of this study was to investigate the contribution of genetic predispositions to depression and inflammation, as measured through polygenic risk scores, on symptom burden (physical and psychological) in patients with head and neck cancer in the immediate post-treatment period (i.e., at three months post-diagnosis), as well as on 3-, 6-, 12-, 24- and 36-month survival.

Methods: Prospective longitudinal study of 223 adults (72 % participation) newly diagnosed with a first occurrence of primary head and neck cancer, paired with genetic data (Illumina PsychArray), validated psychometric measures, Structured Clinical Interviews for DSM Disorders (SCID-I), and medical chart reviews.

Results: Symptom burden at 3 months was predicted by (R2 adj. = 0.38, p < 0.001): a baseline SCID-I Anxiety Disorder (b = 1.69, B = 0.23, 95%CI = 0.43-2.94; p = 0.009), baseline levels of HADS anxiety (b = 0.20, B = 0.29, 95%CI = 0.07-0.34; p = 0.003), the polygenic risk score (PRS) for depression (b = 0.66, B = 0.18, 95%CI = 0.003-1.32; p = 0.049), and cumulated dose of radiotherapy (b = 0.002, B = 0.46, 95%CI = 0.001-0.003; p < 0.001). When controlling for factors known to be associated with cancer survival, patients with a higher PRS associated with depression and inflammation, respectively, presented higher risk of death within 36 months (b = 1.75, Exp(B) = 5.75, 95%CI = 1.55-21.27, p = 0.009 and b = 0.14, Exp(B) = 1.15, 95%CI = 1.01-1.30, p = 0.03).

Conclusions: Our results outline three potential pathways of symptom burden in patients with head and neck cancer: a genetic predisposition towards depression; an initial anxiety disorder upon being diagnosed with cancer or high levels of anxiety upon diagnosis; and a dose-related response to radiotherapy. One may want to investigate early interventions in these areas to alleviate symptom burden in patients faced with a life-threatening disease, as well as consider targeting genetic predisposition towards depression and inflammation implicated in survival. The high prevalence of distress in patients with head and neck cancer is an opportunity to study genetic predispositions, which could potentially be broadly generalized to other cancers and diseases.

Keywords: Cancer; Depression; Early detection; Genetics; Head and neck cancer; Inflammation; Oncology; Polygenic risk score; Prevention; Survival; Symptom burden.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / genetics
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Depression / diagnosis
  • Depression / genetics
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease* / genetics
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / genetics
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Prospective Studies