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Mindfulness and mood problems share genetic influences

Genetic links between depression symptoms, anxiety sensitivity and mindfulness suggest they share biological pathways indicating why low mindfulness could be associated with depression in adolescents, according to research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), published in the journal Depression & Anxiety.

Mindfulness as a psychological trait is characterised by non-judgmental awareness of the present moment that is beneficial to psychological well-being. These findings suggest that mindfulness has a genetic influence and that low mindfulness shares biological pathways with the traits of depression and anxiety sensitivity, thus potentially opening a path for treating these mood problems. Mindfulness was measured in adolescents using a self-report questionnaire, the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) brief version, which has statements relating to attentional control, such as ‘I find myself doing things without paying attention’. This research is the first to investigate genetic influences on mindfulness, and to link the mindfulness trait with the genetic influences on anxiety sensitivity and depression.

Monika Waszczuk from the MRC Centre for Social Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry, IoPPN, and lead author on the research said: “Mindfulness is an important trait that seems to protect from problems such as mood disorders. However, it is unclear what makes some people more mindful than others.  We found that both genes and environment were important in explaining the differences in people, which may be surprising to some who consider mindfulness to be purely a result of meditation training.”   

Assessment for the traits of mindfulness, depression and anxiety sensitivity was carried out on over 2,100 16-year-old twins from a population-based study and the trait for mindfulness was found to be moderately influenced by genetic factors. However, the findings also suggest that the remaining contribution came from environmental factors specific to the individual, which may include parenting, life events and cultural exposure. This implies an individual’s development has a substantial role to play in their mindfulness level, in line with the finding that training can help individuals become more mindful.

“Previous studies suggested that people with depression symptoms are less mindful, but it was unclear why this is the case. We were also interested in why individuals who have high anxiety sensitivity, which is an enhanced sensitivity towards symptoms of anxiety, such as heart palpitations or worry, with a belief that these are harmful, show less mindfulness. Our study is the first to indicate that a large part of the relationship between these psychological traits in adolescence is due to shared genetic liability.”

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council, and also supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London.

Professor Thalia Eley of the Department of Social Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry, senior author on the study, said: “Future research should investigate specific environmental factors, in addition to mindfulness training, that contribute to increase in mindfulness trait. This might provide a potential protection from depressive symptoms and possibly other emotional problems, which increase markedly in adolescence.”

Paper reference: Waszczuk, M. A. et al. ‘A multivariate twin study of trait mindfulness, depressive symptoms, and anxiety sensitivity’ published in Depression & Anxiety DOI: 10.1002/da.22326.

For further information contact Tom Bragg, Press Officer at IoPPN, King’s College London, on +44(0)2078485377 or email