Philadelphia, PA, December 17, 2013 – Depression has been associated with reduced volume of the hippocampus in magnetic resonance imaging studies in humans. A new study just published in Biological Psychiatry now clarifies the cellular basis of these volumetric changes, which have been unclear until now.
Beginning in the 1980s, a series of studies in rodents conducted by Robert Sapolsky and other investigators suggested that the CA3 area of the hippocampus, a brain region implicated in mood and memory, was particularly vulnerable to stress. When analyzing the brain tissue in detail, they reported loss of nerve cells called neurons with stress. Other rodent studies described reductions in the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus associated with stress.
Collectively, these studies suggest that stress-related disorders, such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, might be associated with hippocampal volume loss. This hypothesis is supported by numerous studies reporting reduced hippocampal volume in depressed patients.
The current study, led by Dr. Carol Shively at Wake Forest School of Medicine, extends our insight into hippocampal volume loss associated with depression by studying female nonhuman primates called cynomolgus monkeys. The researchers studied only female monkeys because, while depression is the leading cause of disability in young and middle-aged adults, it is twice as common in women as men.
"In this study we observed unique features of the depressed nonhuman primate brain, in the hippocampus, that were unlike the rat and mouse models of depression that are currently used to develop depression medications," said Shively.
Monkeys have brains that share a lot of similarities with human brains, and medical research in primates can bridge important work being done in rodent models and in humans.
To conduct this study, Shively and her colleagues observed 16 female monkeys over 24 months, who were housed normally in stable social groups in the laboratory. Each monkey was observed weekly over the two year period and assessed for depressive behavior. Any observed depression occurred naturally, without experimental intervention or manipulation, since like humans, monkeys can become depressed.
Then, Stephanie Willard, a graduate student in the lab, examined the entire hippocampus and found that the reduced size of the hippocampus in the depressed monkeys was due to reductions in glia number and neuropil content. However, there were no differences in the number of neurons between the depressed and non-depressed monkeys. Glia surround and support neurons, aiding in communication throughout the brain. Neuropil is made up of a dense network of nerve fibers, their branches and synapses which connect glia and neurons.
"The current data highlight the glial sensitivity to stress," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. "Since glial loss can disturb neural communication in a number of important and well-defined ways, the current findings could have important implications for interpreting neuroimaging findings in depression and for the design of novel antidepressant treatments".
Shively agrees, adding that "new more effective medications for the nearly 15 million Americans suffering from depression are far more likely to be developed if they include studies of medication effects in depressed nonhuman primates."
The article is "Cell Number and Neuropil Alterations in Subregions of the Anterior Hippocampus in a Female Monkey Model of Depression" by Stephanie L. Willard, David R. Riddle, M. Elizabeth Forbes, and Carol A. Shively (doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.03.013). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 74, Issue 12 (December 15, 2013), published by Elsevier.
Notes for editors
Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Rhiannon Bugno at +1 214 648 0880 or Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Dr. Carol Shively at +1 336 716 1524 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or Marguerite Beck, Senior Manager, Media Relations, Wake Forest School of Medicine at +1 336 716 2415 or email@example.com.
The authors' affiliations, and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.
John H. Krystal, M.D., is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, Chief of Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.
About Biological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.
The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.
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