Research from King's College London reveals the detailed mechanism behind how stress hormones reduce the number of new brain cells - a process considered to be linked to depression. The researchers identified a key protein responsible for the long-term detrimental effect of stress on cells, and importantly, successfully used a drug compound to block this effect, offering a potential new avenue for drug discovery.
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) was co-funded by the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre (NIHR BRC) for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London.
Depression affects approximately 1 in 5 people in the UK at some point in their lives. The World Health Organisation estimate that by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of the global burden of disease. Treatment for depression involves either medication or talking therapy, or usually a combination of both. Current antidepressant medication is successful in treating depression in about 50-65% of cases, highlighting the need for new, more effective treatments.
Depression and successful antidepressant treatment are associated with changes in a process called "neurogenesis"- the ability of the adult brain to continue to produce new brain cells. At a molecular level, stress is known to increase levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) which in turn acts on a receptor called the glucocorticoid receptor (GR). However, the exact mechanism explaining how the GR decreases neurogenesis in the brain has remained unclear.
Professor Carmine Pariante, from King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry and lead author of the paper, says: "With as much as half of all depressed patients failing to improve with currently available medications, developing new, more effective antidepressants is an important priority. In order to do this, we need to understand the abnormal mechanisms that we can target. Our study shows the importance of conducting research on cellular models, animal models and clinical samples, all under one roof in order to better facilitate the translation of laboratory findings to patient benefit."
In this study, the multidisciplinary team of researchers studied cellular and animal models before confirming their findings in human blood samples. First, the researchers studied human hippocampal stem cells, which are the source of new cells in the human brain. They gave the cells cortisol to measure the effect on neurogenesis and found that a protein called SGK1 was important in mediating the effects of stress hormones on neurogenesis and on the activity of the GR.
By measuring the effect of cortisol over time, they found that increased levels of SGK1 prolong the detrimental effects of stress hormones on neurogenesis. Specifically, SGK1 enhances and maintains the long-term effect of stress hormones, by keeping the GR active even after cortisol had been washed out of the cells.
Next, the researchers used a pharmacological compound (GSK650394) known to inhibit SGK1, and found they were able to block the detrimental effects of stress hormones and ultimately increase the number of new brain cells.
Finally, the research team were able to confirm these findings by studying levels of SGK1 in animal models and human blood samples of 25 drug-free depressed patients.
Dr Christoph Anacker, from King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry and first author of the paper, says: "Because a reduction of neurogenesis is considered part of the process leading to depression, targeting the molecular pathways that regulate this process may be a promising therapeutic strategy. This novel mechanism may be particularly important for the effects of chronic stress on mood, and ultimately depressive symptoms. Pharmacological interventions aimed at reducing the levels of SGK1 in depressed patients may therefore be a potential strategy for future antidepressant treatments."
Notes to editors:
For a copy of the paper, or interviews with the authors, please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer, King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry. Tel: (+44) 0207 848 5377 / (+44) 07718 697 176 / Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Paper reference: Anacker, C. et al. 'A role for the kinase SGK1 in stress, depression and glucocorticoid effects on hippocampal neurogenesis' Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (May 2013)
The study was funded by the NIHR BRC for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London. Additional funding was provided by the Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation (NARSAD); the Italian Ministry of Health and Regione Lombardia; Research Councils UK; the Canada Research Chairs; the European Commission Innovative Medicine Initiative Joint Undertaking (IMI-JU); the Regione Lombardia Lombardia; the Medical Research Council (UK) and the Commission of European Communities 7th Framework Programme Collaborative Project Grant Agreement.
The views expressed in are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.
About the National Institute for Health Research:
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government's strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR website (http://www.nihr.ac.uk).
About King's College London:
King's College London is one of the top 30 universities in the world (2012/13 QS international world rankings), and was The Sunday Times 'University of the Year 2010/11', and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has more than 25,000 students (of whom more than 10,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and more than 6,500 employees. King's is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.
King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £525 million (year ending 31 July 2011).
King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.
King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: http://www.kingshealthpartners.org.
The College is in the midst of a five-year, £500 million fundraising campaign – World questions|King's answers – created to address some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity as quickly as feasible. The campaign's five priority areas are neuroscience and mental health, leadership and society, cancer, global power and children's health. More information about the campaign is available at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/kingsanswers.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences