"Long before it's in the papers"
September 08, 2015


Brain protein seen elevated in depressed people

Sept. 8, 2015
Courtesy of University of Michigan Health System
and World Science staff

Low. Down. Less than nor­mal. That’s what the word de­pres­sion means, and what peo­ple with de­pres­sion of­ten feel like. But some­times, de­pres­sion can mean too much of some­thing—as new re­search sug­gests.

The find­ing, about a pro­tein called fi­bro­blast growth fac­tor 9 or FGF9, goes against pre­vi­ous find­ings that de­pressed brains of­ten have less of key com­po­nents than non-de­pressed brains.

The new study found peo­ple with ma­jor de­pres­sion had 32 per­cent more of FGF9 in a key part of their brain than peo­ple with­out the con­di­tion. In rats, rais­ing lev­els of that mol­e­cule ar­ti­fi­cially led to de­pres­sion-like be­hav­ior changes, and re­peat­ed so­cial stress boosted lev­els of the pro­tein.

Tak­en to­geth­er, the find­ings pro­vide more ev­i­dence that de­pres­sion is a phys­i­cal ill­ness, said the au­thors of the stu­dy, pub­lished in this week’s early on­line is­sue of the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces

If a drug can be found to reduce levels of the pro­tein or its ef­fects, they added, that could even­tu­ally help al­le­vi­ate a men­tal health con­di­tion that af­fects mil­lions of Amer­i­cans.

Researchers from the Un­ivers­ity of Mich­i­gan Med­i­cal School and other institutions said they reached the con­clu­sions through years of de­tailed com­par­isons of brain tis­sue do­nat­ed by de­pressed and non-de­pressed peo­ple, and stud­ies in rats.

Be­cause drugs that block ex­cess pro­duc­tion of some­thing in the body gen­er­ally cause few­er side ef­fects than drugs aimed at in­creas­ing some­thing, the team said their find­ings could hold prom­ise for the de­vel­op­ment of a new class of an­ti­de­pres­sants.

“Fix­ing de­pres­sion is not easy, be­cause it’s a dis­or­der at the lev­el of the cir­cuits that con­nect brain cells, and many re­gions of the brain are in­volved,” said Elyse Au­r­bach, the neu­ro­sci­ence doc­tor­al stu­dent who is the pa­per’s co-first au­thor. “Still, this is the first time FGF9 has been iden­ti­fied as re­lat­ed to de­pres­sion, and found to be ac­tive in a crit­i­cal ar­ea of the brain for the dis­or­der. We and oth­ers need to study it fur­ther to de­ter­mine what is go­ing on. It’s very ex­cit­ing.”

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Low. Down. Less than normal. That’s what the word depression means, and what people with depression often feel like. But sometimes, depression can mean too much of something—as new research suggests. The finding, about a protein called fibroblast growth factor 9 or FGF9, goes against previous findings that depressed brains often have less of key components than non-depressed brains. The new study found people with major depression had 32 percent more of FGF9 in a key part of their brain than people without the condition. In rats, raising levels of that molecule artificially led to depression-like behavior changes, and repeated social stress boosted levels of the protein. Taken together, the findings provide more evidence that depression is a physical illness, said the authors of the study, published in this week’s early online issue of the journal PNAS. If a drug can be found to target the protein or its effects, they added, that could eventually help alleviate a mental health condition that affects millions of Americans. The molecule’s role was identified by a team from the University of Michigan Medical School and the Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Disorders Research Consortium. They reached the conclusions through years of detailed comparisons of brain tissue donated by people with and without depression, and multiple studies in rats. Because drugs that block excess production of something in the body generally cause fewer side effects than drugs aimed at increasing something, the team said their findings could hold promise for the development of a new class of antidepressants. “Fixing depression is not easy, because it’s a disorder at the level of the circuits that connect brain cells, and many regions of the brain are involved,” said Elyse Aurbach, the neuroscience doctoral student who is the paper’s co-first author. “Still, this is the first time FGF9 has been identified as related to depression, and found to be active in a critical area of the brain for the disorder. We and others need to study it further to determine what is going on. It’s very exciting.”