Events like surgery or heart attacks that cause inflammation can lead to cognitive deficits or depression for months or years afterward, even though the direct effects of inflammation wear off within weeks. In a recent study, Natalie Tronson and colleagues subjected mice to surgical heart attack, sham surgery, or no operation, and observed how well they absorbed new learning eight weeks later.
Both male and female mice had impairments in fear learning following surgical heart attacks. Female mice that received sham surgery also showed deficits in fear learning. When the researchers dissected the mice, analyzing their blood and hippocampi after the eight-week period, inflammatory cytokine measures had normalized as expected, but the researchers found other abnormalities.
Intracellular signaling was dysregulated, and there had been epigenetic changes in cells of the hippocampus. (Epigenetic changes refer to those that change the structure of DNA, such as how tightly it is wound, rather than its sequence. For example, the addition of acetyl groups to DNA or the histones around which it is wound.) The researchers observed increased histone acetylation and phospho-acetylation following the heart attacks.
The researchers concluded that a systemic inflammatory event, such as heart attack or surgery, can cause long-term memory impairment and changes in mood through epigenetic mechanisms. They compared the findings to those of other studies in which normal aging and memory-impairing treatments such as chemotherapy had also been associated with increases in histone acetylation or decreases in histone deacetylase activity.
Stressors in early life can contribute to the risk of developing mood disorders. Given that many treatments for mood disorders work by blocking the serotonin 5-HT transporter, Nicole Baganz and colleagues designed a study to see whether an early life stressor, in this case maternal separation, would affect immune processes that in turn affect serotonin signaling.
In this study as in many before it, mice that were removed from their mothers exhibited behaviors that resembled human anxiety and depression. They were also found to have elevated messenger RNA for several inflammatory cytokines (including IL-1beta and IL-6) in their brain and blood. Mice that had a gene for the interleukin-1 receptor (IL-1R) removed exhibited neither the depressive behavioral effects nor the changes in cytokine levels following maternal separation, showing that the IL-1R gene plays a necessary role in the signaling process that leads to this type of depression. Levels of the stress hormone corticosterone in the blood did not differ in the mice with and without the IL-1R gene.
The researchers concluded that early life stressors can cause lifelong changes in inflammatory cytokine levels in mice.
Rodents that are subjected to social defeat (being overpowered by a bigger, more aggressive animal) develop a syndrome that resembles human depression—they avoid social interaction, lose interest in sucrose, and do less exploring of new places or other animals. A recent finding showed that even witnessing the social defeat of a peer was enough to bring about the depressive behaviors. The same researchers, led by Samina Salim, recently found that young rats (aged 21–27 days) that witnessed their mother go through the trauma of social defeat showed depression-like behavior themselves as adults (at age 60 days).
The rats saw their mothers defeated by the larger rat every day for seven days. As adults, those who witnessed this abuse exhibited depression-like behavior compared to rats of the same age and gender that had not witnessed abuse. The depressive rats gave up more quickly on a test of forced swimming. Male rats showed great depression-like behavior than female rats.
It has been estimated by the American Psychological Association that 15.5 million children in the US witness physical or emotional abuse of a parent (usually their mother). Children who witness domestic violence often show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This rodent research may lead to a better understanding of the consequences of witnessing trauma in childhood, and potential treatments that could help.
Editor’s Note: These data show that rats have something like empathy, and that the psychological aspects of stress (including verbal abuse in humans and witnessing another’s abuse in rodents) may have profound and lasting consequences on behavior.
Regulation of the amygdala (the brain’s emotional center), particularly through its interaction with the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, has been implicated in the experience of fear in animals, and anxiety and depression in humans. Connectivity between the two structures is critical for emotion modulation. Repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is a method of stimulating outer regions of the brain with magnets. Researchers Desmond Oathes and Amit Etkin are investigating whether rTMS can also be used to influence these deeper brain areas, or their interaction with each other.
The researchers’ study used single-pulse probe TMS delivered at a rate of 0.4 Hz at 120% of each participant’s motor threshold, targeted at the anterior or posterior medial frontal gyrus on either side of the brain. The researchers also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the whole brain to observe connectivity between different sections.
RTMS to the right side of the medial frontal gyrus increased connectivity between the amygdala and the ventral anterior cingulate cortex more than stimulation to the left side. Stimulation of the posterior portion of the medial frontal gyrus increased connectivity more than stimulation of the anterior portion.
Editor’s Note: These data indicate that rTMS can alter brain activity in these deeper regions and can influence inter-regional connectivity. This is important because abnormalities in the connectivity of brain regions have increasingly been found in patients with mood disorders. Oathes and Etkin hope that these findings can be applied to others and that rTMS can be used to correct patterns of regional connectivity in the brain in order to improve emotion regulation.
Electroconvulsive therapy is often considered a primary treatment option for patients with severe bipolar disorder that has resisted pharmacological treatment. Researcher Helle K. Schoeyen and colleagues recently published the first randomized controlled trial comparing ECT (in this case right unilateral brief pulse ECT) with algorithm-based pharmacological treatment in 76 patients with treatment-resistant bipolar depression.
The response rate was significantly higher in the ECT group than in the patients who received drug treatment (73.9% versus 35.0%). However, the two treatment groups had similarly low remission rates (34.8% for ECT and 30.0% for pharmacological treatment).
The algorithm-based pharmacological treatment used in the study was based on a sequence of treatments endorsed by researchers Frederick K. Goodwin and Kay Redfield Jamison in their 2007 book Manic-Depressive Illness. A selected treatment was chosen for each participant based on his or her medical history. If the first treatment was ineffective or intolerable, the patient would be switched to the next treatment option. Antipsychotics, antidepressants, anxiety-reducing drugs, and hypnotics were some of the other treatments included in the algorithms.
Patients in the study had previously showed a lack of response to at least two different antidepressants and/or mood stabilizers with documented efficacy in bipolar disorder (lithium, lamotrigine, quetiapine, or olanzapine) in adequate doses for a period of 6 weeks (or until they quit because of side effects).
Editor’s Note: Even when ECT is effective, there is the issue of how to maintain that good response. We previously reported that in a 2013 study by Axel Nordenskjöld et al. in the Journal of ECT, intensive followup treatment with right unilateral brief pulse ECT combined with pharmacotherapy was more effective than pharmacology alone at preventing relapses. Patients who improved after an acute series of ECT (three times/week) then received weekly ECT for six weeks and every two weeks thereafter, totaling 29 ECT treatments in one year.
Other studies of more intermittent continuation ECT have not proved more effective than medication. Thus high intensity right unilateral brief pulse ECT is one option for extending the effects of successful ECT.
Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and Deployment Associated with Inflammatory Abnormalities in Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
Mild traumatic brain injury from improvised explosive devices is an injury particular to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As has been seen in some athletes who sustain repeated mild traumatic brain injuries, such as boxers and football players, neurodegenerative dementias such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy can follow these repeated brain injuries. Researchers are hoping to identify biomarkers that would help in the diagnosis and monitoring of repeated blast-induced mild traumatic brain injury. Researcher Elaine Peskind and colleagues have determined that both deployment to these wars and mild traumatic brain injuries received there are associated with increased inflammatory cytokines in cerebrospinal fluid.
In the study, veterans who had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and had received mild traumatic brain injuries were compared to veterans who were deployed but who were not similarly injured and community participants who had neither been deployed nor experienced a brain injury. The average number of concussion-inducing blasts veterans in the first group had experienced was 14, with the latest occurring an average of four years prior to the study.
Inflammatory cytokine IL-7 was elevated in the spinal fluid of those veterans who had sustained brain injuries. IL-6 was higher both in those deployed and in those who sustained blasts. Eotaxin and granulocyte colony stimulating factor were higher in all of the veterans who had been deployed.
These cytokine abnormalities could account for behavior and cognitive difficulties associated with traumatic brain injury. The researchers concluded that both deployment and mild traumatic brain injury were associated with neural damage and neuroimmune responses.
Editor’s Note: Michael E. Hoffer et al. reported in the journal PLosOne in 2013 that veterans with blast-induced mild traumatic brain injury had a better acute outcome when they were given the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) within the first 24 hours after the trauma. It is interesting to speculate whether this could be explained by NAC’s anti-inflammatory effects, its enhancement of another antioxidant (glutathione), or its ability to increase glial glutamate transporters.
Researcher Dewleen Baker reported in a personal communication to this editor (Robert Post) that in her patients, traumatic brain injury was also associated with white matter abnormalities, and that these injuries conveyed an increased risk of developing PTSD as well.
Telomeres sit at the end of DNA strands and shorten with each cell replication. Shorter telomeres are associated with aging and an increase in multiple medical and psychiatric disorders, while some healthy behaviors including exercising, eating healthy, avoiding smoking, and even being married can help maintain telomere length. New data from researcher Elizabeth Hoge and colleagues suggests that a particular type of meditation can lengthen telomeres.
Previous research has found that three months of full-time meditation increased telomerase, an enzyme that repairs telomeres. Loving-Kindness meditation, which comes from the Vipassana Buddhist tradition and focuses on positive intentions, unselfish kindess, and warmth towards all people, has been found to produce positive effects in individuals who practice it, including increasing positive emotions and sense of purpose, and bringing about improvement in physical symptoms including headaches, nasal congestion, and weakness. Hoge and colleagues hypothesized that people who practice Loving-Kindness meditation would have longer telomeres than control participants of the same age, gender, education level, and experience of depression.
Participants who practiced Loving-Kindness meditation had been doing so near-daily for at least four years, and averaged 512 lifetime hours of this particular type of meditation, and 4,927 lifetime hours of any type of meditation.
The researchers found a trend toward longer relative telomere length in the Loving-Kindess meditation group compared to the control group, and significantly longer telomeres in women who meditated than in women who did not. The researchers conclude that meditation may have a positive effect on mortality.
Other habits that are focused on others, such as caring for a spouse, volunteering in the community, and practicing compassion, forgiveness, and altruism have been found to have health benefits. In a 2012 longitudinal study of elderly participants by Loren Toussaint et al. in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, forgiveness was associated with longevity. Thaddeus W.W. Pace et al. reported in a 2009 article in Psychoneuroendocrinology that compassion meditation reduced levels of certain inflammatory markers.
Editor’s Note: People with affective disorders or at risk for them should consider making some of these positive lifestyle practices part of their daily routine.
Stress can trigger former drug users to begin taking drugs again. In clinical trials, the bonding hormone oxytocin has been found to reduce stress-induced cravings for certain drugs, including alcohol and marijuana. A new study in animals suggests that oxytocin may be able to reduce stress-induced cocaine cravings as well.
Brandon Bentzley and colleagues combined an unpredictable shock to the foot with an alkaloid called yohimbe that comes from a particular tree bark to apply stress to animals who had previously developed a cocaine self-administration habit that had since been extinguished. The combination of the foot shocks and yohimbe brought back robust reinstatement of the animals’ cocaine seeking behaviors, but pretreatment with oxytocin (at doses of 1 mg/kg) prevented this reinstatement.
This research suggests that oxytocin has potential to prevent stress-induced cocaine cravings in people.
An oral preparation of lavender oil called Silexan was previously found to reduce anxiety in people with generalized anxiety disorders or subthreshold anxiety symptoms without causing sedation. It seems to work by inhibiting voltage dependent calcium channels in a manner similar to the anti-anxiety drug pregabalin. Unlike pregabalin, the lavender oil treatment also reduced depression in the people with subthreshold anxiety. Researchers are now exploring lavender oil’s effects on rats who exhibit behaviors that resemble human depression, and on rat and human cells in vitro.
Silexan had positive effects on rats with depression-like behaviors, increasing the time they would swim before giving up in a forced swim test. It also increased the growth of rat and human neurons in a lab setting. These effects are usually connected with activation of a protein called CREB that turns on some genes that affect mood. The researchers, led by Walter Mueller, were able to clarify the pathway for this activation by inhibiting specific kinases, enzymes responsible for transferring phosphates across different molecules. The kinases involved included PKA, PI3K, MAPK and CaMK IV.
Editor’s Note: Oral lavender supplements may help improve anxiety and depression without sedation.
Mice with a particular genetic mutation affecting circadian rhythms exhibit symptoms that resemble those of human mania: disruption of sleep and wake cycles, hyperactivity, and reduced anxiety and depression. It has been found that these behaviors can be normalized by inhibiting a type of enzyme called histone deacetylases (HDACs). HDACs bring about epigenetic changes to gene transcription by removing acetyl groups from histones, the structures around which DNA is wrapped. Removal of the acetyl group tightens the structure of the DNA, making it more difficult to transcribe. The drug valproate (trade name Depakote) is one type of HDAC inhibitor. It prevents the removal of the acetyl groups, loosening the structure of the DNA, making it easier to transcribe.
A recent study by Ryan Logan and colleagues compared the effects of valproate and other HDAC inhibitors on mice with a mutation in the Clock delta 19 gene, which causes mania-like symptoms. Valproate and the HDAC inhibitor SAHA both normalized the mice behavior. MS275, another HDAC inhibitor that targets only class I HDACs, also normalized the behaviors. The researchers were able to determine that all of these treatments targeted a specific class I HDAC called HDAC2, which has been implicated in schizoaffective and bipolar disorders.
These data link epigenetic mechanisms (HDAC inhibition) to the antimanic effects of valproate in this animal model of mania. It appears that maintaining the presence of acetyl groups on histones has antimanic effects in mice with a mutation in the Clock delta 19 gene.