Vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) is an FDA-approved treatment for seizures and treatment-resistant depression. It typically requires an operation to insert a stimulator in a patient’s chest wall that delivers electrical impulses to their left vagus nerve via electrodes placed on the patient’s neck. New research by Bashar W. Badran and colleagues may have identified a less invasive and less expensive way to stimulate the vagal nerve—via electrodes placed on the ear.
The researchers tested different parameters for vagal nerve stimulation via the ear on 15 healthy volunteers and found that this type of VNS was feasible, tolerable, and reasonably safe. Among the different parameters tested, a stimulation pulse width of 500 microseconds at 25Hz had the greatest effect on heart rate, slowing it by about 4.25 beats per minute compared to a sham treatment.
Next Badran and colleagues plan to study the effects of this type of VNS on brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Patients with bipolar disorder often show increases in signs of inflammation, including levels of the proteins IL-2, IL-4, Il-6, IL-10 and tumor necrosis factor in their blood. Lithium is the most effective treatment for bipolar disorder, but it is not yet clear how it works. A recent study by researcher Joao de Quevado and colleagues determined that lithium can reduce the same inflammatory markers in rats.
Rats were treated with amphetamine to induce mania-like behavior, which was accompanied by increases in some of the same inflammatory markers in the blood and brain that are increased in people with bipolar disorder. Lithium treatment reduced both the manic behavior and levels of these inflammatory proteins in the rats.
The researchers concluded that lithium may treat mania by reducing inflammation.
A new study suggests that the nutritional supplement vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, can improve symptoms of depression when taken with an antidepressant. Edith Holsboer-Trachsler and colleagues presented the research from their randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study at a recent scientific meeting. In a 12-week study, about 50 adults (averaging 35 years of age) with major depression were prescribed a selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant. In addition, half received thiamine supplements while the other half were given placebos. Starting at six weeks, those receiving thiamine with their antidepressant showed more improvement in their depressive symptoms than those receiving the antidepressant alone.
Thiamine is an essential nutrient for humans. It is found in foods such as yeast, pork, cereal grains, and certain vegetables. Thiamine deficiency has been linked to irritability and symptoms of depression, while thiamine supplementation can improve mood and reduce feelings of stress. No side effects were reported in the study.
Holsboer-Trachsler and colleagues hope that thiamine supplementation may help patients adhere to their antidepressant regimens by decreasing the time it takes until their moods begin to lift.
RTMS is a non-invasive treatment in which a magnetic coil placed near the skull transmits electrical signals to the brain. It is an effective treatment for depression, and there is growing evidence that it may also be able to treat addictions.
Participants in the pilot study by researcher Antonello Bonci and colleagues received rTMS directed at their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or pharmacological treatments (including medications to manage depression, anxiety, and sleep problems) over a 29-day study period. Among the rTMS recipients, 69% remained cocaine-free during the study period, compared to only 19% of those treated with medications. Those who received rTMS also reported fewer cravings.
There were few side effects among those who received rTMS, and there was a 100% compliance rate among the 32 participants, meaning they all showed up for each of their sessions.
Bonci and colleagues are working on a larger study that will compare rTMS treatment to a sham procedure rather than to a medication regime.
Researchers believe there is a link between diabetes and depression. Some drugs used to treat type II diabetes and its associated inflammatory symptoms have been found to improve depression as well. These include metformin, rosiglitazone, and pioglitazone. A recent study by Natalie Rasgon and colleagues explored the effects of pioglitazone treatment on people with insulin resistance, insulin sensitivity and/or pre-diabetes and ongoing depression. The researchers hoped to find that adding pioglitazone to the patients’ regular antidepressant regimen might improve depression by reducing inflammation.
The study also touched on the role of telomere length in mental and metabolic disorders. Telomeres are repeated DNA sequences that sit at the end of chromosomes and protect them during cell replication. Telomeres get shorter with aging and with psychiatric illnesses. In the study, telomere length was used to predict whether patients’ depression would improve.
Rasgon and colleagues found that in those patients taking both pioglitazone and antidepressant treatments (compared to those who received a placebo in addition to their antidepressants), longer telomeres predicted better antidepressant response. This suggests that telomere length could be used as a biomarker—that is, measuring a patient’s telomere length could reveal whether that patient’s depression is likely to respond to an anti-inflammatory treatment such as pioglitazone. The research was presented at a 2015 scientific meeting.
Inflammation has been linked to both unipolar and bipolar depression. New research shows that anti-inflammatory treatments may reduce bipolar depression, for which few treatments exist.
Researchers led by Jonathan Savitz divided people with bipolar depression into four groups. One group received two placebos, another received minocycline (a drug with neuroprotective and immune-modulating properties) plus a placebo, the third received aspirin plus a placebo, and the final group received both minocycline and aspirin. Of the 64 participants, those who took both minocycline and aspirin were most likely to respond to treatment and to enter remission. In people with body mass indexes (BMIs) above the median of 30, a sign of greater inflammation, 100% of those who received both anti-inflammatory drugs responded to treatment, compared to 36% of those who received aspirin alone, 33% of those who received minocycline alone, and 25% of those who received two placebos.
Dosages of the drugs were 100mg twice a day for minocycline and 81mg twice a day for aspirin. Savitz and colleagues believe that aspirin and minocycline must work particularly well together, and are modifying their study to more directly compare use of the two anti-inflammatory drugs together to the absence of anti-inflammatory treatments.
Studies have found that inflammatory molecules play a role in depression. A recent study by researcher Yu Sun and colleagues used data from clinical trials of anti-inflammatory drugs to show that these drugs also reduced depressive symptoms. The two drugs, which are administered either by a shot or injection into the skin, each consist of antibodies that target the inflammatory molecule IL-6. Sirukumab is being looked at as a possible treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, while siltuximab is a potential treatment for Castleman’s disease, an illness characterized by enlarged lymph nodes. As part of the clinical trials for these drugs, patients with these illnesses responded to survey questions that assessed symptoms of depression and fatigue.
Among patients who reported that they have at least one depressive symptom most of the time and another symptom at least part of the time, the anti-inflammatory drugs significantly improved depressive symptoms compared to placebo. Even when the patients’ inflammatory illnesses did not respond to the anti-inflammatory treatments, their depressive symptoms did improve (symptoms of fatigue did not). An improvement in depressive symptoms was observed after 6 weeks in patients with Castleman’s disease taking siltuximab, and after 12 weeks in patients with rheumatoid arthritis taking sirukumab.
In the sirukumab study, the level of the inflammatory molecule IL-6 in participants’ blood before the study was linked to the magnitude of improvement in their depressive symptoms during the study. IL-6 is elevated in many patients with unipolar and bipolar depression. It is possible that antibodies that target IL-6 could be used to treat primary depression (in the absence of other inflammatory disorders).
Many psychiatric illnesses, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety disorders may stem from abnormalities in brain development that begin before birth. Researchers are trying to determine whether dietary supplements taken by pregnant mothers or infants can reduce the risk of such illnesses. At a recent scientific meeting, researcher Randal Ross and colleagues reported that compared to placebo, choline supplements reduced problems with a brain process called sensory gating in one-month-old infants and also improved the children’s attention span and social skills at age 3.
Sensory gating is the process by which the brain filters out unimportant information, to avoid flooding higher cortical centers with irrelevant stimuli. Deficits in the way the brain inhibits response to this type of irrelevant information are associated with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
In Ross’s study, healthy pregnant mothers received either a placebo or 6300 mg of choline, a nutrient found in liver, egg yolks, and meat. After delivery, the infants also received 700 mg of supplemental choline per day. In children who carried CHRNA7, a risk gene for schizophrenia discovered by Ross’s colleague Robert Freedman, choline reversed the associated risk of sensory gating problems and normalized their behavior at age 3.
Stress increases the risk of psychiatric illnesses such as major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Not everyone who experiences stress goes on to develop these illnesses, though. Researchers are currently trying to find out why, exploring treatments that might increase resilience and prevent mental illnesses.
Animal research is often used to study depression. Mice exposed to certain stressors behave in ways that resemble human depression—like giving up faster when they’re forced to tread water, or withdrawing from activities they once enjoyed, like eating sucrose. In a recent study by researcher Christine Denny and colleagues, mice were injected with either saline or ketamine, a rapid-acting antidepressant, and one week later they were exposed to triggers that typically produce a depressive response. Mice who received the saline injection still got depressed when, for example, they were repeatedly forced to confront a dominant mouse. But mice who received ketamine injections did better, maintaining their motivation and not showing signs of depressive behavior following the stress. The researchers concluded that ketamine may have a protective effect against stress.
Editor’s Note: These results are remarkable because ketamine’s effects are typically short-lived.
It has been known for years that ketamine, an anesthetic at higher doses, can quickly produce anti-depressant effects when delivered intravenously. However, these effects typically last only a few days. New research is exploring how to extend the antidepressant effects of ketamine.
Researcher Ella Daly and colleagues recently compared a form of ketamine called esketamine, this time delivered intranasally, to placebo in people with tough-to-treat depression that had resisted other treatments. Daly and colleagues randomized participants to receive one of three different doses of intranasal esketamine (28mg, 56mg, or 84mg) or placebo twice a week.
All of the doses of intranasal esketamine improved participants’ depression compared to placebo, with higher doses producing more sustained improvement. After the 2-week double-blind study, participants could choose to continue (or begin) taking esketamine for another nine weeks, tapering dosage slowly from twice a week to once every other week by the end. The participants were then monitored for another eight weeks. The intranasal esketamine doses they received led to sustained improvements in depression that lasted, in some cases, through the eight weeks following their final dose.
Side effects were not severe. Ketamine can produce dissociative sensations, but these tended to dissipate with two hours of administration.
Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceuticals funded this research, which was presented at a scientific meeting in 2015, and they plan to continue researching intranasal esketamine in the hopes of getting Food and Drug Administration approval for the drug.