New research suggests that the ratio of cortisol to C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, may be a biomarker of depression that affects men and women differently. In women, lower ratios of cortisol to CRP were associated with more severe depression symptoms, including poor quality sleep, sleep disturbances, and decreased extraversion. In men, higher ratios of cortisol to CRP were associated with more daytime disturbance and greater anxiety. The study by E.C. Suarez et al. was published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
Further work must be done to confirm whether low cortisol and high inflammation predicts depression in women, while the opposite (high cortisol and low inflammation) predicts depression in men.
Saffron, the expensive yellow spice derived from the plant Crocus sativus, was the subject of a recent meta-analysis in the journal Human Psychopharmacology. The meta-analysis included six studies of a total of 230 adult outpatients with major depressive disorder. In two of these studies, 30mg/day of saffron extract was as effective as 20mg/day of the antidepressant fluoxetine and 100mg/day imipramine for the treatment of mild to moderate depression had been in other studies.
Saffron is suggested to have anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antiplatelet effects, and current clinical trials are exploring whether it could prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease.
The current study was an effort to systematically analyze clinical trials on saffron to establish treatment parameters such as dosage in addition to safety information.
Deep brain stimulation is a treatment in which electrodes are implanted in the brain to treat movement or affective disorders. At the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, Thomas Schlaepfer reviewed the current status of studies of deep brain stimulation for depression. The bad news is that two double-blind randomized controlled studies are no longer recruiting patients because interim analysis failed to show a benefit to the deep brain stimulation over a sham stimulation. The studies targeted two of the most promising parts of the brain for deep brain stimulation—the subgenual anterior cingulate (important for motivation) and the anterior limb of the internal capsule (which contains nerve fibers going to and from the cerebral cortex), so their failure is a big disappointment.
The better news is that Schlaepfer repositioned the electrodes to target a site in the medial forebrain bundle nearer to the ventral tegmental area. After this shift he observed rapid onset of antidepressant response (within two days) in seven of the first eight patients studied, and these responses persisted over many months of follow up. This response was achieved at 2.8 microamps, a lower stimulation current than was used in other studies of deep brain stimulation.
Editor’s Note: Since patients started to feel better when they were still on the operating table, this may offer an opportunity to more rapidly assess effectiveness, do a double-blind study, and see if the findings can be replicated as another mode of achieving rapid-acting and long-lasting antidepressant effects in treatment-resistant patients. Intravenous ketamine has rapid-onset antidepressant effects, but its effects are short-lived.
To study depression in humans, researchers look to rodents to learn more about behavior. Rodents who are repeatedly defeated by more aggressive animals often begin to exhibit behavior that resembles depression. At the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology (CINP), researcher Andre Der-Avakian reported that in a recent study, repeated experiences of social defeat led to depressive behavior in a subgroup of animals (which he calls susceptible), but not in others (which he calls resilient). Among many biological differences, the resilient animals showed increases in neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus.
Chronic treatment of the susceptible animals with the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant fluoxetine or the tricyclic antidepressant desipramine, which both increase neurogenesis, also reversed the depressive behavior in about half of the animals. A single injection of the anesthetic ketamine (which has rapid-acting antidepressant effects in humans) reversed social avoidance behavior in about 25% of the animals. One depression-like symptom was anhedonia (loss of pleasure from previously enjoyed activities), which researchers measured by observing to what extent the animals engaged in intracranial self-stimulation, pressing a bar to stimulate the brain pleasurably. The effectiveness of the drugs in inducing resilient behavior was related to the degree of anhedonia seen in the animals. The drugs worked less well in the more anhedonic animals (those who gave up the intracranial stimulation more easily, indicating that they experienced less reward from it.)
Low levels of folate, also known as folic acid or vitamin B9, have been associated with depressive symptoms in the general population. A 2014 article by A.L. Sharpley et al. in the Journal of Affective Disorders explored whether folate has protective effects. Teens and young adults (ages 14–24) at high risk for mood disorders due to a family history of these illnesses were randomly assigned to receive either folate supplements (2.5 mg daily) or placebo for up to three months. While there were no significant differences in the percentage of young people in each group who went on to be diagnosed with a mood disorder, in the folate group there was a delayed onset of illness in those who went on to become unwell.
In a 2013 article in the journal European Psychiatry, in which researcher Valery V. Gafarov examined depression’s influence on cardiovascular health in Russia, an astonishing 55.2% of women aged 25–64 years in the study were diagnosed with depression. The study, in which 870 women in the city of Novosibirsk were surveyed over 16 years from 1995 to 2010, was part of a World Health Organization program called “MONICA-psychosocial.”
The researchers collected information on the incidence of myocardial infarction (heart attack), arterial hypertension, and stroke among the women. Over the 16 years of the study, 2.2% of the women had heart attacks and 5.1% had strokes. Women with depression were 2.53 times more likely to have a heart attack and 4.63 times more likely to have a stroke than women without depression.
Among women with average education levels, married women with depression were more likely to have heart attacks, hypertension, and strokes. Hypertension was more likely among women who worked as managers or light manual laborers.
Joanna Soczynska in Roger McIntyre’s lab at the University of Toronto presented a poster at the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology (CINP) on the anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective antibiotic minocycline.
Twenty-seven patients with a major depression received minocycline in addition to the medications they were already being prescribed. Dosage was 100mg twice a day. Treatment with adjunctive minocycline was associated with significant improvement on several scales that measure depression severity.
Editor’s Note: What was particularly interesting was that a subset of patients achieved complete remission, raising the question whether these patients might have markers of inflammation that would predict this excellent response. The authors concluded that the “results provide a rationale for testing minocycline’s efficacy in a larger randomized, placebo-controlled trial.”
Exactly this type of study was proposed a year ago by researcher Andy Nierenberg and given the best marks by a National Institute of Mental Health review committee but was turned down for funding because the National Institute of Mental Health has implemented a new initiative, Research Domain Criteria (RDoC), that lays out new criteria for research, limiting funding to those studies that focus on a molecular target that spans several diagnoses.)
At the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, researcher Scott Russo described characteristics of rodents who showed depression-like behavior after 10 days of exposure to a larger, more aggressive animal (a phenomenon known as defeat stress). These animals exhibited many behaviors that resembled human depression, including anxiety-like behaviors while navigating a maze; activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; circadian rhythm abnormalities; metabolic changes such as glucose intolerance; susceptibility to addiction; anhedonia, a lack of interest in sucrose, sex or intracranial self-stimulation; and profound and permanent social avoidance.
In susceptible animals, Russo found anatomical changes in the GABAergic neurons of the nucleus accumbens (also known as the ventral striatum), including increased numbers of synapses and a greater number of stubby spines on dendrites (the branched projections of neurons where electrical signals are passed from one cell to the next), as well as greater excitability of glutamatergic input, observed as excitatory post-synaptic potentials.
Russo’s attempt to identify these key neurons among the billions of neurons and the 100 to 500 trillion synapses in the brain was like the search for a needle in a haystack, but thinks he found it. The medium spiny neurons of the nucleus accumbens contain GABA and receive synapses from the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and intralaminar nucleus of the thalamus (ILT), in addition to dopamine inputs from the VTA, and cholinergic, somatostatin, and orexin inputs. Russo found that it was the ILT inputs that conveyed susceptibility to defeat stress, and their presynaptic endings showed increased levels of glutamate transporters (VGLUT-2). Driving the ILT was sufficient to cause the rodents to display the depression-like behaviors, and silencing the ILT during defeat stress prevented the susceptible behaviors (like social avoidance) and promoted resilience.
Theta-burst stimulation is a type of repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) currently being investigated for the treatment of severe depression. In rTMS a magnetic pulse applied to the scalp causes neurons to fire. A recent study of 60 patients by Cheng-Ta Li et al. published in the journal Brain compared continuous, intermittent, and combined theta-burst treatment with a sham treatment. While all four groups of patients with treatment-resistant depression improved, indicating some placebo effect, patients in the group who received intermittent stimulation over the left prefrontal cortex and those who received a combination of intermittent left prefrontal cortex stimulation and continuous right prefrontal stimulation showed the greatest improvement in their depression. Those patients with greater prior treatment resistance responded less well across all of the treatments.
Editor’s Note: Studies continue to explore the optimum parameters for rTMS, but large studies and meta-analyses continue to show that the treatment has positive effects in depression.
We reported in BNN Volume 17, Issue 6 in 2013 on researchers’ efforts to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder using the drug ketamine. This research by Adriana Feder et al. has now been published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
In the study of 41 patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, patients showed a greater reduction in symptoms 24 hours after receiving intravenous (IV) ketamine than after taking IV midazolam, a benzodiazepine used as an active placebo control because it produces anti-anxiety and sedating effects similar to ketamine’s. The patients ranged in age from 18 to 55 years of age and were free of other medication for two weeks before the study. Ketamine was also associated with reduction in depressive symptoms and with general clinical improvement, and side effects were minimal.