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In search of vulnerability mechanisms for adolescent depression has the working title of 'What influences our mood?' This research project examines adolescents' mood to see if we can identify factors that will help us understand why some young people experience low mood more often than others.


Depression is a highly prevalent illness that often recurs over the lifetime, with earlier onset being predictive of episode length and severity. Previous research has highlighted certain markers to be salient predictors, such as neuroticism, cognitive biases, and stress, so this work examines these markers alongside other potential factors. The overall aim is to identify markers for adolescent depression in order to predict mood over time; this would lead to being able to identify those at risk to ensure they receive early intervention. 

The project is a collaboration between Clinical Psychology (involving Dr Stella Chan and Dr Elaine Gray) and Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh (involving Dr Heather Whalley, Dr Toni Clarke, and Prof Andrew McIntosh). The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology.


We are working with young people aged 12 to 18 and assessing their mood (over three time points), psychological/cognitive factors (including thinking styles, emotional biases, and personality traits), physical/biological functions (including genetic factors (DNA methylation to measure epigenetic age), sleep quality (using actiwatches), and hair cortisol (the so-called stress hormone)), and social factors (including interpersonal relationships and social media use). NHS data linkage was sought to examine the predictivity of these measures over the longer term. It is possible that these factors may help us explain health and mental health outcomes in the future, so we will also examine whether these factors can predict mood over time. 

Overview of project stages:

Project development: February 2018-May 2018 (complete).

Data collection 1 - in schools and online: June 2018-August 2019 (complete).

Data collection 2  - 6-month follow up: December 2018-January 2020 (complete).

Data collection 3 - 18-month follow up: December 2019-January 2021 (ongoing).

Data collection 4 - data linkage with NHS records: to be confirmed.

Analysis of data collection 1 and 2: ongoing, but we plan to post some preliminary results on this webpage in April 2020.

Hair cortisol analysis: we will post some preliminary results on this webpage in April 2020.

DNA methylation analysis: ongoing.

Prize draw for the 6-month online follow-up study: this took place in February 2020.

Prize draw for the 18-month online follow-up study: this will take place in January/February 2021.

What was involved for participants?

We recruited 425 12- to 18-year olds from 12 Scottish secondary schools over four council areas.  

1. Participants completed three short mood questionnaires in school. These questionnaires were the only compulsory part of the project, for those who wished to take part. 

2. Participants were asked to provide a sample of hair for us to measure cortisol (the so-called stress hormone) levels in the hair over the past few months. This was to see whether the cortisol levels related to their reported stress and to their mood. Hair samples were processed by the Queen’s Medical Research Institute. (Biological samples are not retained after processing.)

3.  Participants were asked to give a saliva sample, which involved spitting into a tube for a few minutes (see photos below). This was to examine DNA methylation (to measure epigenetic age) and to see whether this DNA information related to mood. Saliva samples were processed at the Wellcome Trust Building at Western General Hospital. (Biological samples are not retained after processing.)

4.  Participants were asked to wear an actiwatch (see photo below) - a wristwatch that measures sleep quality. This was to see whether sleep quality relates to mood.

5.  Participants were asked to complete some more questionnaires online. These questionnaires were to measure different factors thought to be linked to mood, such as psychological/cognitive factors, physical/biological factors, and social factors.


6. Participants were asked whether they give permission for their NHS records to be accessed in the future to see if we can link the outcomes of this study to their health in the future (such as diagnoses or medications related to mood). NHS PBPP approval will be sought for this. No information from this study will be shared with the NHS. 

7. Participants have been contacted 6 months after completing the first part of the study and will be contacted 18 months after the first part of the study. Participants are asked to repeat the three mood questionnaires, so we can see how participants' mood has changed over time and if it relates to any of the measures.

This research has been approved by the Research Ethics Committee at the School of Health in Social Science and the Local Education Authorities of the schools taking part in the project. The work adheres to GDPR guidelines. 

All the information collected from participants is kept confidential and will not be shared with anyone. Only the members of the research team have access to the data. Data is anonymised and stored against participant codes only, with only one separate file to link participant codes to participant names. Participant names and all other identifying information is kept separate. All the information collected is stored securely in encrypted files on the University of Edinburgh's network. Data will be reviewed for destruction every five years and once the study is complete only an anonymised master copy of the data will exist in University archives. The findings of this study may be written up and may be published in academic journals or presented at conferences, but names and all other identifying information will never be disclosed.

If you have any questions please contact Stella or Heather.