Depression is a tough enemy, but why is it so difficult to treat? According to a new study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, which was published yesterday in Nature Neuroscience, we didn’t fully understand the disease before. Senior author Scott M. Thompson and his team have now discovered that brain cells don’t communicate properly with each other in people who suffer from clinical depression.
The current statistics on depression are, well, pretty depressing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that about nine percent of Americans suffer from depression, with up to 15 percent reporting the condition in some areas like Puerto Rico.
The National Institutes for Health said in any given 12 month period, 6.7 percent of adults suffer from a major depressive disorder that interferes with their ability to function. In some years, close to one out of every 10 women reported suffering from the disease.
Treatment with antidepressants has been well-publicized since the late 1980s when a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were launched. They remain the most common medicine used to treat depression and include such well-known examples as Prozac and Paxil.
When they work, they were theorized to operate by increasing the levels of a chemical in the brain called serotonin. The trouble is that they don’t always work. WebMD’s website reports, “Only 30% of people with depression go into full remission after taking their first course of antidepressants.”
That didn’t make sense to Dr. Thompson. If it was just a matter of replacing a missing chemical, the drugs should have worked most or all of the time.
His team performed a detailed study on rats and mice. By the way, in case you were wondering, a depressed rodent is apparently all “whatev” and doesn’t show much preference for sugary water over plain water. Normal rodents go for the sweet stuff. So it was easy for the researchers to figure out which animals were depressed.
They found that a low level of serotonin was only part of the problem. The inability of depressed brain cells to work together effectively was the rest of the story, a discovery which may shed light on why some depressed patients complain that they can’t concentrate.
Serotonin sometimes helps relink the brain cells so they can properly communicate again. So the SSRIs work in those cases.
But now researchers know that they will need other techniques to repair brain cell communications if they want a complete toolkit to battle clinical depression.
[photo crying child courtesy Kyle Flood and Wikipedia]