Inflammation Associated With Duration of Untreated Unipolar Depression

February 14, 2019 · Posted in Brain Imaging, Course of Illness, Neurobiology · Comment 

depressed woman

Researcher Sophia Attwells and colleagues reported at a 2018 scientific meeting that the longer the time that a patient went without treatment for depression, the more inflammation they exhibited on positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Attwells and colleagues used the PET scans to assess the total distribution volume of TSPO, which is a marker of brain microglial activation, a form of inflammation.

Strikingly, in participants who had untreated major depressive disorder for 10 years or longer, TSPO distribution volume was 29–33% greater in the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula than in participants who were untreated for 9 years or less. TSPO distribution volume was 31–39% greater in these three important regions of gray matter in participants with long durations of untreated major depressive disorder than in healthy control participants.

Editor’s Note: In schizophrenia, the duration of untreated interval (DUI) is associated with a poor prognosis, but not with inflammation. Researcher Yvette Sheline has also reported that less time on antidepressants compared to more time treated with them was associated with greater hippocampal volume loss with aging in patients with major depression.

Given Attwells and colleagues’ remarkable finding about the adverse effects of the DUI in depression, including inflammation and brain volume loss, and other findings that associate more episodes with poorer functioning, cognition, and treatment responsiveness, physicians and patients should think hard about committing to long-term antidepressant treatment to prevent episodes, beginning early in the course of illness.

This editor (Robert M. Post) would propose that if a second depressive episode occurs after a first depression that responded well to treatment, this would be an appropriate time to start antidepressant prophylaxis. Most guidelines suggest that prophylaxis be started after a third episode, but these recommendations generally do not account for newer data on the pernicious effects of experiencing repeated depressive episodes. In addition to causing dysfunction and disability, going through four depressive episodes doubles the risk of dementia in old age, and this risk increases further with each successive episode, according to researcher Lars Kessing.

Having too many depressions is bad for the brain. In Kessing’s studies, two episodes of unipolar or bipolar depression did not increase the risk of dementia compared to the general population, while four depressions did. One could compare the effects of repeated depressions on the brain to the effects of heart attacks on the heart muscle. A heart might still function well after one or even two heart attacks, but the chances of significant loss of function and the risk of congestive heart failure increase as a function of the number of heart attacks. After even one heart attack, most patients change their lifestyle and/or go on prophylactic medications to reduce risk factors such as elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, weight, blood sugar, and smoking. The benefits of reducing heart attacks are a no brainer. Trying to prevent recurrent depression with pharmacotherapy and adjunctive psychotherapy after a second depressive episode should be a no brainer too.

In addition, if antidepressants are not effective enough in preventing depressions, lithium is an option, even in unipolar depression, for preventing both episodes and suicide. The evidence of efficacy in both instances is very strong according to an article by Mohammed T. Abou-Saleh in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders in 2017.  The renowned psychiatrist Jules Angst’s recommendation as to when to start lithium treatment was that if a patient had had one episode or more in the previous five years in addition to the present episode, then they were likely to have two further episodes in the following five years, and lithium prophylaxis would be recommended.

Baseline Levels of CRP Could Help Predict Clinical Response to Different Treatments

February 5, 2019 · Posted in Current Treatments · Comment 

C-reactive protein (CRP)

C-reactive protein, or CRP, is a marker or inflammation that has been linked to depression and other illnesses. People with high levels of CRP respond differently to medications than people with lower CRP, so assessing CRP levels may help determine which medications are best to treat a given patient.

High baseline levels of CRP (3–5pg/ml) predict a poor response to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants (SSRIs) and to psychotherapy, and are associated with increased risk of recurrent depression, heart attack, and stroke.

However, high baseline CRP predicts a better response to the antidepressants nortriptyline and bupropion. High CRP is also associated with better antidepressant response to infliximab (a monoclonal antibody that inhibits the inflammatory cytokine TNF alpha), while low levels of CRP predict worsening depression upon taking infliximab.

High baseline CRP also predicts good antidepressant response to intravenous ketamine (which works rapidly to improve treatment-resistant depression), minocycline (an anti-inflammatory antibiotic that decreases microglial activation), L-methylfolate (a supplement that can treat folate deficiency), N-acetylcysteine (an antioxidant that can improve depression, pathological habits, and addictions), and omega-3 fatty acids (except in people with low levels of DHA).

High baseline CRP also predicts a good response to the antipsychotic drug lurasidone (marketed under the trade name Latuda) in bipolar depression. In people with high baseline CRP, lurasidone’s positive results have a huge effect size of 0.85, while in people with low CRP (<3pg/ml) the improvement on lurasidone has a smaller effect size (0.35).

In personal communications with this editor (Robert M. Post) in 2018, experts in the field (Charles L. Raison and Vladimir Maletic) agreed that assessing baseline CRP levels in a given patient could help determine optimal strategies to treat their depression and predict the patient’s responsiveness to different treatment approaches.

At a 2018 scientific meeting, researchers Cynthia Shannon, Thomas Weickert, and colleagues reported that high baseline levels of CRP were associated with symptom improvement in patients with schizophrenia when they were treated with the drug canakinumab (marketed under the trade name Ilaris). Canakinumab is a human monoclonal antibody that targets the inflammatory cytokine interleukin-1 beta (Il-1b). Il-1b is elevated in a subgroup of patients with depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, and CRP levels are an indication of the associated inflammation.

Ketamine May Enhance the Effects of Cognitive Training Therapy

January 28, 2019 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 
group therapy

Woman receiving cognitive training

Rebecca B. Price, a professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues reported at a recent scientific meeting that the combination of intravenous ketamine treatment and four days of cognitive training to enhance positive self-representations improved depression better than either intervention alone (IV ketamine plus a sham training or a non-medicated saline drip plus 4 days of cognitive work).

Price and colleagues suggested that priming brain plasticity with ketamine could enhance cognitive training focused on increasing positive self-representations. Psychologists have theorized that self-representations (or assessments of one’s strengths and other qualities) can be a resource that helps people cope with life stress.

Il-6 Inhibitor Sirukumab May Improve Anhedonia, But Not General Depression

January 25, 2019 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

cyclingAt a 2018 scientific meeting, researcher Giacomo Salvadore and colleagues reported that the drug sirukumab, a monoclonal antibody that targets the inflammatory marker Il-6 and that was originally developed to treat rheumatoid arthritis, did not have a statistically significant effect on overall depression compared to placebo. However, by the twelfth week of treatment, sirukumab did have a significant effect on anhedonia (loss of interest or pleasure in activities that one previously enjoyed).

The degree of improvement in anhedonia was significantly correlated with patients’ baseline levels of the inflammatory marker CRP. Since the inflammatory marker that sirukumab targets, Il-6, is one of those most often elevated in depression, it appears that more study of sirukumab would be warranted.

Low Levels of Acetyl-L-Carnitine Associated with Insulin Resistance in Traumatized Children

January 22, 2019 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

childhood traumaResearcher Carla Nasca and colleagues from the Rockefeller University reported at a late-2018 scientific meeting that depressed patients with a history of childhood adversity had low levels of the amino acid acetyl-L-carnitine and also exhibited insulin resistance. This is noteworthy because in a series of small studies, acetyl-L-carnitine supplements have had antidepressant effects. In laboratory animals, acetyl-L-carnitine also sensitizes insulin receptors. This suggests the possibility that the supplements could provide a two-for-one benefit in depressed patients with a history of adversity in childhood.

Vitamin D3 Improves Depression in Older Adults

December 3, 2018 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

vitamin D

Researcher Negin Masoudi Alavi and colleagues reported in the journal Clinical Nutrition in 2018 that compared to placebo, 50,000 IU of vitamin D3 taken weekly for eight weeks improved depression in depressed patients over the age of 60.

Although the literature about vitamin D3’s effects on depression are mixed, a 2014 meta-analysis by Simon Spedding in the journal Nutrients found that in studies of vitamin D-deficient depressed participants whose vitamin D levels were restored to normal levels by the end of the study, vitamin D significantly improved depression. (Spedding attributed earlier mixed results to studies that did not clearly correct a vitamin D deficiency.) A 2013 study by Nayereh Khoraminya and colleagues in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry suggested that a 1500 IU dose of vitamin D3 combined with the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant fluoxetine improved depression more than fluoxetine plus placebo in depressed patients who were not necessarily deficient in vitamin D. Another study by Jacqueline A. Pettersen in the journal Experimental Gerontology found that in healthy adults, 4,000 IU of vitamin D3 improved cognitive functioning (namely visual memory) more than 400 IU.

Editor’s Note: Given these promising studies, the safety of D3, and fact that psychiatric patients are often deficient in vitamin D3, taking vitamin D3 supplements to improve depression might be worth trying.

Inflammation is Associated with Antidepressant Treatment Resistance

November 23, 2018 · Posted in Current Treatments, Risk Factors · Comment 

depressed woman

Researcher Ebrahim Haroon and colleagues report in a 2018 issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology that people whose depression failed to respond to at least three different antidepressants in their current episode of depression had higher levels of inflammation than those who had fewer than three failed antidepressant trials. 

The researchers found that patients who had not responded to antidepressants had higher levels of the inflammatory markers TNF-alpha, TNF-alpha receptor 2, and Il-6. The inflammatory marker CRP was also significantly elevated in these patients when statistical analyses that excluded body mass index (BMI) were used.

Haroon and colleagues reported that a third of all patients with major depressive disorder fail to respond to currently available antidepressant treatments, and that inflammation may be to blame because it interferes with the neurotransmitter systems that antidepressants target.

Editor’s Note: These data indirectly support the use of anti-inflammatory drugs to augment the effects of antidepressants in patients with treatment resistant depression.  A caution that may be very important is to assess evidence of inflammation at baseline, as some data suggest that people with low CRP may, for example, do more poorly with a blocker of TNF-alpha, while people with high CRP at baseline (over 3 pg/ml) show good improvement.

Inflammatory Marker IL-6 is Elevated in People with Depression and Those with a History of Childhood Trauma

November 21, 2018 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

verbal abuse of a child

In a 2018 article in the journal Psychiatry Research, researcher Ana Munjiza and colleagues reported that the inflammatory marker IL-6 was higher in 64 depressed people than in 53 non-depressed people, and that levels of IL-6 among people in the depressed group were significantly correlated with scores on a questionnaire in which participants reported traumas experienced in childhood. They reported more physical abuse, physical neglect, and emotional abuse.

Munjiza and colleagues indicate that trauma in childhood is a risk factor for depression in adulthood, as other researchers have suggested, and that inflammation could mediate the relationship between childhood adversity and depression.

Editor’s Note: IL-6 has been associated with antidepressant treatment resistance. IL-6 is secreted from white cells in the blood and from monocytes from the bone marrow in response to stress. It enters the brain and starts an inflammatory cascade that induces depressive behaviors. Animal studies have shown that if IL-6 secretion is blocked, depressive-like behaviors do not occur.

Another indicator of inflammation is CRP, and elevations in CRP have been associated with poor response to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, and better response to the noradrenergic tricyclic antidepressant nortriptyline and the dopamine active antidepressant bupropion.

Treatments for depressed people with histories of childhood trauma may include psychotherapy, somatic therapies such as repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and medication. More research is needed to determine the optimal treatment regimens for this subgroup of depression sufferers, including whether anti-inflammatory drugs could play a helpful role in preventing or treating depression. People with elevated inflammatory markers (such as IL-6, CRP, IL-1, or TNF-alpha) are likely to be better candidates for adjunctive anti-inflammatory treatments than those with normal or low baseline levels of inflammation.

Inflammation and Depression: Treatment Implications

November 19, 2018 · Posted in Neurobiology · Comment 

inflammation in the brainVladimir Maletic of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville gave a plenary talk at the 2018 meeting of the North Carolina Psychiatric Association that described a variety of ways that inflammation can drive depression.

Maletic explained that stress can increase neurotransmitters that activate brain macrophages, increase NFkB (a protein that controls DNA transcription and cell survival), and increase brain inflammation, evidenced by elevated levels of the inflammatory markers IL-1b, IL-6, TNF-alpha, and C-reactive protein (CRP). These signs of inflammation are associated with changes in brain function and connectivity that are consistent with depression, fatigue, and cognitive slowing.

Inflammation measured outside of the brain and spinal cord is associated with increased activity of the insula (a key brain sensor and modulator of emotions), disconnection between the prefrontal cortex and the reward circuits in the nucleus accumbens, and decreased function and structural changes to the hippocampus (critical for memory).

Maletic also explained that inflammation changes the way the amino acid tryptophan is metabolized. Normally tryptophan is converted into kyneurenic acid, which prevents excitotoxicity and has anticonvulsant effects. Stress can lead to tryptophan being metabolized instead into quinolinic acid, which is neurotoxic and has been linked to certain psychiatric disorders and neurodegenerative processes. This in turn impairs synaptic functioning, including increasing glutamate and decreasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), impairing a type of glia called oligodendroglia (which produce myelin), and the formation of new neural connections.

These findings have several important implications for treatment. Increases in inflammation have been linked to the atypical type of depression characterized by increased appetite, weight gain, and increased sleep rather than the more classic presentation of depression that includes loss of appetite, weight loss and insomnia. Thus, weight gain, waist circumference, and body mass index (BMI) are correlated with inflammation and can signal a poor response to medications (including the rapid-acting antidepressant ketamine and some other antidepressants). If someone with unipolar depression has high levels of CRP, they tend to have a poorer response to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, and may respond better to the noradrenergic tricyclic antidepressant nortryptyline, the serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and the dopamine active antidepressant bupropion.

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Using Light to Improve Sleep and Depression

November 13, 2018 · Posted in Current Treatments, Risk Factors · Comment 
blue-blocking glasses

Blue-blocking glasses

At the 2018 meeting of the North Carolina Psychiatric Association, researcher Chris Aiken described the phenomenon of sleep inertia, when people are awakened from deep sleep by an alarm, rather than waking at the end of a sleep cycle, and are groggy for 15 minutes. Depressed people may stay groggy for 4 hours. A dawn simulator may help. These lights turn on gradually over the course of 30 to 60 minutes, reaching 250 lux while the patient is still asleep. Dawn simulators have worked in eight out of ten controlled clinical trials to help people with seasonal affective disorder, adolescents, and normal adults wake up more easily. They range in cost from $25 to $90 and some brands include PER2LED or LightenUp. Aiken says dawn simulators can improve depression, sleep quality, and cognition.

Evening and nighttime light: Bright lights and blue light, like the light that comes from electronic screens, can shut down the body’s secretion of melatonin, making people awake and alert in the evening when they should be getting sleepy. Dim light or glasses that filter out blue light allow increases in melatonin secretion in the evening, while bright light suppresses it. Missing this early melatonin pulse creates “night owls” who have delayed sleep onset.

Because light still reaches our eyes through our eyelids as we sleep, even low-level light during the night impairs sleep, cognition, and learning, and increases the risk of depression by a hazard ratio of 1.8 (about double the risk). A 2017 study by Kenji Obayashi in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that bedroom light above 5 lux elevated rates of depression in older adults after two years of followup. Living room light averaged around 50 lux and increased depression further.

Lux chart

A slide from Aiken’s presentation shows comparative levels of light

The treatment is turning off TVs, electronic screens, and cellphones in the evening or wearing blue-blocking glasses, which can be found for less than $10. Blue-blocking glasses can increase calmness and reduce anxiety, and even are effective in treating mania. Then, during sleep, wear an eye mask or get light-blocking blinds or curtains for windows. For a complete blackout, use blackout curtains, aluminum foil over windows, electric tape over LED lights, or try sleeping in the basement.

Aiken suggests that to re-instate healthy sleep patterns, people should institute virtual darkness from 6pm to 8am, including wearing blue-blocking glasses when out of bed. Then they should institute total darkness or wear an eye mask when in bed. When symptoms improve, this routine can gradually be shifted to begin later in the evening, such as two hours before bedtime.

Blue light filters are also available for smartphones and tablets including Apple Nightshift mode, Kindle BlueShade, and Android Twilight and Blue Light Filter.

Glasses that filter out blue light include Uvex Ultraspec 2000, 50360X ($7 on Amazon) and Uvex Skyper 351933X ($7-10 on Amazon). The website sells blue-blocking glasses from $45 and a variety of other blue-free lighting products such as lightbulbs and flashlights.

Bright light therapy for unipolar and bipolar depression: 30 minutes of bright light (7,500 to 10,000 lux) in the morning can help treat depression in unipolar and bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder. The effects usually take 3 to 7 days to set in, but they only last while a patient continues using the bright light in the morning. Researcher Dorothy K. Sit and colleagues found that bright light therapy in the morning sometimes caused hypomanic reactions in people with bipolar disorder, and reported in a 2018 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry that midday light therapy (from noon to 2:30pm) was also effective without this unwanted effect. However, a 2018 article by Ne?e Yorguner Küpeli and colleagues in the journal Psychiatry Research suggested that a half hour of morning light for two weeks was sufficient to bring about improvement in 81% of patients with bipolar disorder and did not cause serious side effects.

Melatonin regimen for sleep onset delay: Melatonin can be used to treat severe night-owls with a very late onset of sleep (for example, going to bed at 2 or 3am and sleeping late into the morning). Melatonin can help with sleep onset to some extent when used at bedtime, but in those with an extreme phase shift, researcher Alfred J. Lewy recommends a regimen of low dose priming with 400–500 micrograms of melatonin at 4pm and then a full dose of 3 milligrams of melatonin at midnight. The 4pm priming dose helps pull back the delayed onset of the body’s secretion of melatonin toward a more normal schedule.

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