New research on mice clarifies lithium’s effects on neurons and suggests how it can lead to improved symptoms. Dendrites are the long projections on neurons that seem to reach out to form synapses with other neurons. The surface of these dendrites is covered in mushroom-shaped spines that help create these synaptic connections. A 2016 article by research Ben Cheyette and colleagues in the journal Molecular Psychiatry reports that in mice with a genetic mutation common to people with autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, lithium restored healthy numbers of the mushroom-shaped spines. The lithium treatment also reversed symptoms such as lack of interest in social interactions, lack of motivation, and anxiety in the mice.
Cheyette and colleagues first identified a genetic mutation that affects signaling in what is known as the brain’s Wnt pathway. The mutation, while rare, is 80% more common in people with bipolar disorder, autism, and schizophrenia than in people without these disorders.
When the mice were given a similar mutation, they exhibited symptoms such as anxiety, decreased sociability, and lack of motivation. They also had reduced numbers of dendritic spines and impaired Wnt signaling.
Lithium can improve Wnt signaling by blocking an enzyme called GSK-3 beta that impairs the signaling.
Treating the mice with lithium restored their dendritic spines and improved their behavior.
Wnt signaling and dendritic spines may offer the key to lithium’s success in treating a variety of psychiatric disorders in people.
At the 2017 meeting of the American College of Psychiatrists, researchers Charles L. Raison and Vladimir Maletic gave a plenary lecture on the role of inflammation in depression. Meta-analyses have confirmed that inflammatory markers including Il-1, Il-6, TNF alpha, and CRP are elevated in about 1/3 of depressed patients. However, Raison and Maletic made the point that anti-inflammatory medications are not for everyone. While patients with elevated levels of CRP at baseline responded to an anti–TNF alpha antibody, patients with low CRP values at baseline actually got worse.
Raison and Maletic cited three studies that have also linked CRP to differential response to traditional antidepressants. In unipolar depression, those with low CRP respond well to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, while those with elevated blood levels of CRP seem to respond better to a dopamine-active antidepressant such as bupropion or a noradrenergic-active antidepressant such as nortriptyline or the serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) antidepressant duloxetine. Patients with high inflammation at baseline also seem to respond better to intravenous ketamine and oral doses of omega-3 fatty acids.
Studies of animals have suggested that inflammation throughout the body is implicated in depression. Studies in which rodents are repeatedly defeated by larger animals show that these animals have increased inflammation from lymphocites (a type of white blood cells) in the blood, and monocytes (another type of white blood cells) from the bone marrow and spleen. This inflammation can induce depression-like behaviors in the rodents, which is prevented if the inflammatory mechanisms are blocked. These data suggest that depression is not just in the brain—inflammation from all over the body plays an important role.
A German study published in 2016 suggests that transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) can affect the duration of a person’s nightly sleep. Lukas Frase and colleagues compared the effects of two different tDCS parameters and a sham stimulation on the sleep patterns of 19 healthy volunteers.
TDCS is a treatment in which an anode and a cathode electrode placed on the skull are used to apply a steady, low-level current of electricity to the brain.
Bi-frontal anodal stimulation, intended to increase arousal, significantly decreased total sleep time compared to the other two interventions.
Bi-frontal cathodal stimulation, intended to decrease arousal, did not increase total sleep time, possibly because there is a ‘ceiling’ beyond which good sleepers do not sleep longer.
EEG analysis showed that the anodal stimulation did increase arousal, while cathodal stimulation decreased it.
The research increases what is currently known about sleep-wake regulation by showing that total sleep time can be decreased using anodal tDCS. The researchers hope this knowledge can contribute to future treatments for disturbed arousal and sleep.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is involved in various aspects of learning and memory. The DNA for BDNF contains nine different regulatory sites, each of which is involved in different aspects of learning. Researcher Keri Martinovich studied each site by selectively knocking each one out with a genetic manipulation. She found that blocking the e1 site increased acquisition of new learning and recall in mice, while e2 did the opposite. Blockade of e4 had no effect on these memory functions but markedly blocked the process of extinction, which involves a different kind of new learning.
A mouse that learned to associate a particular cue with a shock (a process known as conditioned fear) will stop reacting to the cue after it is presented many times without a shock. This learning that the cue is no longer associated with the shock is referred to as extinction. The animals with e4 blocked in their BDNF did not develop the new extinction learning, and continued to react to the cue as if it were still associated with the shock.
Editor’s Note: These data may have clinical relevance for humans. The anticonvulsant valproate (trade name Depakote), a histone deacetylase inhibitor, selectively increases the e4 promoter site of BDNF and facilitates extinction of conditioned fear, according to research by Tim Bredy et al. published in 2010.
Clinical trails should examine whether valproate could enhance fear extinction in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
We sometimes refer to epigenetics, a process by which the environment impacts not your inherited genes (based on the DNA nucleotides that encode amino acids to be sequenced in the production of proteins), but how easy it is to activate gene transcription or repress gene transcription.
There are various epigenetic modifications that can occur. Sometimes acetyl or methyl groups are added to DNA or the histones around which DNA is wound.
1. DNA Methylation (usually repressive)
2. Histone Methylation (usually repressive)
3. Histone Acetylation (usually activating)
4. DNA hydroxymethylation
5. Micro RNAs (si-mRNA) (repressing or activating)
6. Nucleosome remodeling by chromatin regulatory enzymes. If the histone spools around which DNA is wrapped are moved further apart, this is activating. If the histones are moved closer together, this is repressing.
At a recent scientific meeting, Rachael Yehada showed that PTSD-like traits could be passed transgenerationally. Mothers in New York City who were pregnant on September 11, 2001 and developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) produced children with low cortisol in their blood (a sign of PTSD). If the fathers had PTSD during the mother’s pregnancy, the children had high cortisol.
These gender-related findings have some parallels in studies of rodents. When a rat pup is separated from its mother for 15 minutes, the mother is overjoyed to see the pup return and licks and grooms it excessively. This maternal overprotection yields an animal with lifelong low cortisol through an epigenetic process. The glucocorticoid receptor gives a feedback message to suppress cortisol, and glucocorticoid receptors are increased in the pups’ brains because of lower methylation of the DNA promoter for glucocorticoid receptors.
If a father has PTSD, there is more methylation of the promoter for glucocorticoid receptors and less expression of them in the forebrain. There is also less feedback suppression of cortisol and the baby exhibits high cortisol.
The methylation of the glucocorticoid receptors in the offspring’s white blood cells is highly correlated (r=0.57, p<0.005, n=23) with methylation in the parent’s white blood cells.
Repeated social defeat stress (when an intruder mouse is repeatedly threatened by a larger mouse defending its home territory) is often used as a model to study human depression. Animals repeatedly exposed to social defeat stress start to exhibit depression-like behaviors such as social avoidance and loss of interest in sucrose. Georgia Hodes, a researcher at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, reported at a recent scientific meeting that repeated defeat stress–induced behavior was blocked when IL-6, an inflammatory cytokine released by white blood cells in the blood, was inhibited. The central nervous system did not appear to be involved.
Interestingly, mice with more white blood cells and more IL-6 release at baseline (prior to the social defeat stress) were more likely to show the defeat-stress depressive behaviors.
Editor’s Note: The higher number and greater reactivity of white blood cells seen in these mice could be a clinical marker of vulnerability to defeat stress, and such findings are worthy of study in human depression. White blood cells are critical to fighting infection and sometimes their overactivity can contribute to inflammation. In meta-analyses, a subgroup of depressed patients consistently show elevated inflammatory markers (including IL-1, IL-6, TNF alpha, and CRP), and it remains to be seen whether these markers of inflammation are generated in the central nervous system or come from white blood cells in the blood, and whether their targeted suppression could be a new route to antidepressant effects (as in the study of defeat stress in mice).
Contrary to all common sense, researcher Brian Dias showed that when rats that were future fathers learned to associate an odor with a shock, this learning could be passed on to the next generation when the father mated with a female rat that had not learned the same association.
It turns out that the next generation of rat pups shows increased behavioral reactivity to the odor in a process different from the fear conditioning they might exhibit if they learned to avoid the odor through their own experiences.
Presumably, the pup is somehow programmed through an epigenetic modification of the father’s sperm to grow more neurons from the nose to the olfactory bulb that specifically react to the odor its father feared, and not to other odors. Miraculously, when the second generation pup grows up and fathers a third generation pup, the new pup also shows increased behavioral sensitivity to that specific odor. How the odor information from the first generation is represented in the fathers’ sperm and passed on to their descendants is still a complete mystery.
There are also new data that a father rat fed a diet deficient in folic acid (vitamin B9) will sire offspring with more congenital malformations. Additionally, an obese father rat fed a diet that includes extra fat calories will sire pups that become obese as adults even when fed a normal milk diet from a svelte mother before weaning and then fed a normal diet after weaning.
Mothers’ behavior usually gets most of the credit and/or blame for her children’s behavior, but now it looks like fathers’ diet or behavior (even before they have children) may have lasting consequences for their offspring.
Scientists often use fear conditioning to study rodents’ learning and behavior. If a particular stimulus (such as a light, a sound, or an odor) is presented paired with the delivery of a mild shock, the animal begins to associate the stimulus with the shock and will freeze when it is presented and avoid the stimulus.
New research shows that if a pregnant rat (known as a dam) goes through fear conditioning that pairs an odor with a shock, the rat’s offspring will also avoid that odor into adolescence. Even if the pups are raised by a different mother who never went through the fear conditioning, they still avoid the odor into adolescence, showing that they do not learn the behavior through watching their mother.
The conditioning is specific to the particular odor, such that a different odor not used in the fear conditioning does not evoke a heightened reaction from the pups. It appears that the pup learns the fear through chemical signals, such as alarm pheromones that can pass through the placenta.
Rats who are taught to associate a light with an electric shock learn to avoid the light. This process is known as conditioned fear. New research shows that if one rat watches another rat go through fear conditioning, the observing rat will also show the effects of fear conditioning. It will also avoid the light, but only if it had previous experience with fear conditioning. It appears that rats have the ability to learn from other rats’ painful experiences.