An explosion in the family
Motivated by the discovery of his fatherís suicide, a Vanderbilt researcher seeks clues to depression
Blakely, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Molecular Neuroscience, was only 22 months old when, in December 1960, his father ended his life. “It was like a bomb went off,” he says. “The debris that scattered through the lives of my siblings and my mother didn’t allow a lot of penetration into this issue for a long time.”
As soon as they could, his three older brothers and older sister drifted away from the family home in Columbus and nearby Fort Benning, Ga., where their father, Glenn Blakely, a career Army officer and veteran of World War II and Korea, had directed the ROTC program.
One sibling would flee to the jungles of Vietnam. Three other siblings and Blakely’s mother would later be treated for depression. But because he was not told what had happened – “I thought he had a heart attack,” Blakely says – he was sheltered from the shock, the sadness and the anger that continued to reverberate for years through the rest of his family.
It was not until he was a college junior, and already planning a career in science, that his mother told him the story: How his father had become severely depressed the previous autumn. How she sought help from their minister, and how her husband angrily rejected it. How desperate he became and how, that December morning, “The children found him.”
In shock, Blakely scoured his father’s medical and military records. Glenn Blakely had been diagnosed with hepatitis, inflammation of the liver that could have left him fatigued, depressed and perhaps convinced that he was going to die anyway. But there is no evidence of a family history of depression, no biological clue to explain why he ended his life at the age of 47.
Meanwhile, Blakely pursued his career, earning his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins University in 1987, and teaching and doing research at Emory University before joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 1995. His research involves neurotransmitter transporters, proteins involved in the transmitting of electrical signals through the brain. “It is a very odd turn of events that my research would end up identifying genes that are the targets in the brain for antidepressants,” he says.
“In a very personal way, (the suicide) has remained a motivation for me staying in the hunt for clues to mental illness,” Blakely says. “I certainly developed my own interest in science and brain independent of this … But I know my awakening to the horrors of brain disease in my own family reinforced that trajectory, and made me much more aware of what other families have to go through, and particularly children who have traumatic events happen to them.”
In collaboration with his Vanderbilt colleagues, including Richard Shelton, M.D., and Elaine Sanders-Bush, Ph.D., Blakely has found some genetic clues to depression. But it’s not as simple as genes determining behavior. “All the really complex disorders (especially those involving brain function) are a very rich mix of genes and environment, and the interaction of early childhood events,” Blakely says.
“The more we learn about how the brain works, the way the environment and the brain interact, hopefully … the events that happened to my family would be less likely to happen again,” he says. “Tragically, I know that they happen every day, still … (But) it’s getting better.”