Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) keeps neurons healthy and is critical for long-term memory and synapse formation. BDNF levels increase in the nucleus accumbens (the brain’s reward center) and decrease in the hippocampus during clinical depression and chronic cocaine use. In rodents, the same changes in BDNF levels occur during defeat stress (which resembles human depression).
Rodents who are repeatedly defeated by a larger rodent exhibit behaviors such as social withdrawal, lethargy, and decreased interest in sucrose. The increases in BDNF in the nucleus accumbens of these rodents could reflect the learning that takes place during the repeated defeat stress and the depression-like behaviors that follow it. Blocking the BDNF increases in the nucleus accumbens prevents these behaviors from developing.
Chadi Abdallah and other researchers at Yale University recently found that the left nucleus accumbens of patients with treatment-resistant depression is enlarged compared to normal controls, and the drug ketamine, which produces rapid-onset antidepressant effects, rapidly decreases the volume of the nucleus accumbens in the depressed patients. The mechanism by which it does so is unknown, but could reflect some suppression of the depressive learning.
Any relationship between the volume of the nucleus accumbens and its levels of BDNF is unknown, but ketamine’s effect on the size of this brain region could be linked to a decrease in the defeat-stress memories.
At a recent scientific conference, researcher Donna Roybal presented research showing that children at high risk of developing bipolar disorder due to a positive family history of the illness had some abnormalities in important white matter tracts in the brain. Prior to illness onset, there was increased fractional anisotropy (FA), a sign of white matter integrity, but following the onset of full-blown bipolar illness there were decreases in FA.
Roybal postulated that these findings show an increased connectivity of brain areas prior to illness onset, but some erosion of the white matter tracts with illness progression.
Editor’s Note: It will be critical to replicate these findings in order to better define who is at highest risk for bipolar disorder so that attempts at prevention can be explored.
As childhood obesity has increased over the past several decades, the metabolic syndrome has also become more prevalent among children and adolescents. The metabolic syndrome consists of five measures related to obesity: elevations in fasting glucose levels or insulin resistance, a high proportion of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) to HDL (“good” cholesterol), elevated triglycerides, hypertension, and abdominal obesity or high waist circumference. A patient with three of these abnormalities would be diagnosed with the metabolic syndrome.
In adults, the metabolic syndrome has been associated with neurocognitive impairments. Researchers decided to look at adolescents with the metabolic syndrome to determine whether these brain effects are a result of long-term metabolic impairment or whether they can take place after short-term periods of poor metabolism as well. In a study published by Yau et al. in the journal Pediatrics last year, 49 adolescents with the metabolic syndrome were compared to 62 adolescents without the syndrome who had been matched for similar age, socioeconomic status, school grade, gender, and ethnicity.
The adolescents with the metabolic syndrome had lower scores on tests of math, spelling, attention, and mental flexibility, as well as a trend for lower overall intelligence. In brain measures such as hippocampal volume, amount of brain cerebrospinal fluid, and microstructural integrity in white matter tracts, the seriousness of the metabolic syndrome correlated with the level of abnormality on these measures.
Editor’s Note: It seems as though even short-term problems with metabolism can lead to brain impairments like lower cognitive performance and decreased integrity of brain structures. These effects are even seen before vascular disease and type 2 diabetes are manifest.
It is doubly important, in terms of both cardiovascular and neurobiological risks, to look out for one’s medical and psychiatric health. Reducing the abnormal components of the metabolic syndrome should produce benefits for both the cardiovascular system and the central nervous system.
Almost 40% of patients with bipolar illness in the US have the metabolic syndrome, so considerable effort will be required to improve this public health crisis.
A decades-long study in New Zealand suggests that people who use marijuana persistently during adolescence lose 8 IQ points by adulthood compared to their peers who never use marijuana. Quitting or reducing cannabis use after adolescence did not restore the intellectual abilities in those who used it persistently in their youth. This is the first study of its kind that controlled for differences in functioning that existed before adolescence.
Participants took part in neuropsychological testing at the age of 13, prior to any cannabis use, and then were periodically interviewed about their use of the drug (at the ages of 18, 21, 26, 32, and 38). At age 38 they underwent IQ testing again.
Although persistent cannabis users tended to have fewer years of education, the lack of education was not responsible for the difference in adult IQ.
Those participants who only began using cannabis persistently in adulthood did not see a decline in IQ, suggesting that the adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to damage from cannabis use.
At the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), Carrie E. Bearden presented data from a study that predicted conversion to psychosis in at-risk youth (those who have prodromal symptoms or a particular genetic mutation that leads to psychosis) by observing white matter abnormalities.
Bearden found that the degree of white matter abnormality seen during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was proportional to the degree of cognitive deficit in patients who subsequently developed a first episode of psychosis. The white matter abnormalities were seen particularly in the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF) and were associated with increased severity of symptomatology. The overall degree of white matter alteration was also significantly related to clinical outcome 15 months later.
Editor’s Note: The SLF is a major neuronal conduit between prefrontal cortical systems, which are responsible for cognition and planning, and the parietal cortex, which is responsible for spatial abilities. Disruption of this fiber track has been related to difficulties in social cognition and “theory of mind” concepts, like inferring what others might be thinking.
There is considerable evidence that children with bipolar disorder have smaller amygdalas, and the amygdala also appears to be hyper-reactive when these children perform facial emotion recognition tasks. A symposium on longitudinal imaging studies in pediatric bipolar disorder was held at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to shed light on other brain abnormalities in these children.
Researcher Nancy Aldeman reported that there is some evidence children with bipolar disorder have decreased gray matter volume in parts of the brain including the subgenual cingulate gyrus, the orbital frontal cortex, and the superior temporal gyrus, as well as the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and amygdala. At the same time there is evidence of increased size of the basal ganglia. These abnormalities do not appear to precede the onset of the illness.
Some changes occur over the course of the illness. The basal ganglia seem to increase in volume in patients with bipolar disorder, but decrease in volume in those with severe mood dysregulation and comorbid ADHD. Moreover, parietal cortex and precuneus cortex volumes appeared to increase in children with bipolar disorder while decreasing or staying the same in normal volunteer controls.
A meta-analysis of brain imaging studies indicated that in general, the size of the amygdala appears to increase from childhood to adulthood in bipolar patients, starting out smaller than that of similarly-aged normal volunteers, but becoming larger than that of adult normal volunteers as the patients age into adulthood.
Lithium treatment increases gray matter volume in a variety of cortical areas and in the hippocampus in multiple studies. In contrast, treatment with valproate for 6 weeks appears to decrease hippocampal volume.
In an abstract presented at the 5th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, K. Sim and colleagues discussed the impact of increased body mass index on the integrity of white matter in the brain during a first episode of mania. The researchers found significant abnormalities in white matter integrity in the temporal pole and occipital brain regions in overweight and obese patients compared to patients of normal weight. These data highlight the need to clarify the neural mechanisms that link obesity and poorer functional outcomes in bipolar disorder.
Other investigators have reported that bipolar patients with obesity have a less robust response to naturalistic treatment compared to those of normal weight. At least one study suggested that patients with overweight and obesity experience more cognitive difficulties.
Editor’s Note: The pathophysiological mechanisms involved in the relationship between weight and brain function are not yet clear, although one possibility is that in obese patients, some fat cells in the abdominal area become too big to survive and are scavenged by other cytokine-producing cells. These inflammatory cytokines are then able to cross the blood-brain barrier, enter the brain, and affect neuronal functioning. Whether a mechanism like this is at play in relation to these particular findings remains for further investigation.
Nonetheless, these data suggest the importance of good diet, exercise, and other means of maintaining a good body weight in order to attempt to avoid some of the adverse associations of obesity with deficits in cognition, white matter integrity, and treatment outcome.
We’ve been posting recently about diet and about treatments that are weight-neutral. There is evidence that diet, inflammation and depression are all linked. Epidemiological studies by Joe Hiblen have shown that in countries whose populations eat more fish and thus have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, there is lower incidence of depression, suicide, and cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and strokes. This may be because the major omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are anti-inflammatory, and inflammation has been linked to depression. EPA inhibits the enzymes phospholipase A2 and cyclo-oxygenase-2 (COX-2), and their subsequent inflammatory effects on cytokines. DHA inhibits the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL6.
Researcher John Davis recently reviewed relevant literature and found that diets high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids are associated with lower incidence of depression, cardiovascular disease, and markers of inflammatory processes. Conversely, diets high in fat and in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids are associated with obesity, depression, and cardiovascular disease.
Various studies have shown the links between inflammation and depression. For example, when patients are given alpha-interferon to treat viral hepatitis, there is a subsequent increase in inflammatory cytokines IL-1 and IL-6, and depression often follows. Also, depressed patients have an increased ratio of pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory cytokines in their blood.
Another sign of a link between bipolar illness and inflammation can be seen in biochemical analysis of brain specimens obtained at autopsy. Researcher Rapaka Rao in the laboratory of Stanley Rapoport at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, has reported that increased markers of neuronal inflammation and excitotoxicity were found in the brains of people who had had bipolar disorder. Phospholipase A2 and COX-2 were significantly elevated in the brains of those with bipolar illness and those with schizophrenia compared with controls. Pro-inflammatory interleukin I was also significantly increased in the brains of those who had had either illness. Read more