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Why the Thrill is Gone: Scientists Identify Potential Target for Treating Major Symptom of Depression

December 16, 2012 1 comment

Stanford University School of Medicine scientists have laid bare a novel molecular mechanism responsible for the most important symptom of major depression: anhedonia, the loss of the ability to experience pleasure. While their study was conducted in mice, the brain circuit involved in this newly elucidated pathway is largely identical between rodents and humans, upping the odds that the findings point toward new therapies for depression and other disorders.

Additionally, opinion leaders hailed the study’s inventive methodology, saying it may offer a much sounder approach to testing new antidepressants than the methods now routinely used by drug developers.

While as many as one in six Americans is likely to suffer a major depression in their lifetimes, current medications either are inadequate or eventually stop working in as many as 50 percent of those for whom they’re prescribed.

“This may be because all current medications for depression work via the same mechanisms,” said Robert Malenka, MD, PhD, the Nancy Friend Pritzker Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “They increase levels of one or another of two small molecules that some nerve cells in the brain use to signal one another. To get better treatments, there’s a great need to understand in greater detail the brain biology that underlies depression’s symptoms.” The study’s first author is Byung Kook Lim, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in Malenka’s laboratory.

Malenka is senior author of the new study, published July 12 in Nature, which reveals a novel drug target by showing how a hormone known to affect appetite turns off the brain’s ability to experience pleasure when an animal is stressed. This hormone, melanocortin, signals to an ancient and almost universal apparatus deep in the brain called the reward circuit, which has evolved to guide animals toward resources, behaviors and environments — such as food, sex and warmth — that enhance their prospects for survival.

Scientists found that both chronic stress and the direct administration of melanocortin diminished the signaling strength of some synapses in the nucleus accumbens that contain receptors for melanocortin. The nucleus accumbens is labeled in this drawing of a human brain cross section. (up)

“This is the first study to suggest that we should look at the role of melanocortin in depression-related syndromes,” said Eric Nestler, MD, PhD, professor and chair of neuroscience and director of the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Nestler was not involved in the study but is familiar with its contents. Read more…

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