Epigenetics of BDNF in depression

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, says the World Health Organization. The. The. I knew it was bad, but… ‘the’? More than 300 million people suffer from it worldwide and in many places fewer than 10% of these receive treatment. Lack of treatment is due to many things, from lack of access to healthcare to lack of proper diagnosis; and not in the least due to social stigma.

To complicate matters, the etiology of depression is still not fully elucidated, despite hundreds of thousand of experimental articles published out-there. Perhaps millions. But, because hundreds of thousands of experimental articles perhaps millions have been published, we know a helluva a lot about it than, say, 50 years ago. The enormous puzzle is being painstakingly assembled as we speak by scientists all over the world. I daresay we have a lot of pieces already, if not all at least 3 out of 4 corners, so we managed to build a not so foggy view of the general picture on the box lid. Here is one of the hottest pieces of the puzzle, one of those central pieces that bring the rabbit into focus.

Before I get to the rabbit, let me tell you about the corners. In the fifties people thought that depression is due to having too little neurotransmitters from the monoamine class in the brain. This thought did not arise willy-nilly, but from the observation that drugs that increase monoamine levels in the brain alleviate depression symptoms, and, correspondingly, drugs which deplete monoamines induce depression symptoms. A bit later on, the monoamine most culpable was found to be serotonin. All well and good, plenty of evidence, observational, correlational, causational, and mechanistic supporting the monoamine hypothesis of depression. But two more pieces of evidence kept nagging the researchers. The first one was that the monoamine enhancing drugs take days to weeks to start working. So, if low on serotonin is the case, then a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) should elevate serotonin levels within maximum an hour of ingestion and lower symptom severity, so how come it takes weeks? The second was even more eyebrow raising: these monoamine-enhancing drugs work in about 50 % of the cases. Why not all? Or, more pragmatically put, why not most of all if the underlying cause is the same?

It took decades to address these problems. The problem of having to wait weeks until some beneficial effects of antidepressants show up has been explained away, at least partly, by issues in the serotonin regulation in the brain (e.g. autoreceptors senzitization, serotonin transporter abnormalities). As for the second problem, the most parsimonious answer is that that archeological site called DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which psychologists, psychiatrists, and scientists all over the world have to use to make a diagnosis is nothing but a garbage bag of last century relics with little to no resemblance of this century’s understanding of the brain and its disorders. In other words, what DSM calls major depressive disorder (MDD) may as well be more than one disorder and then no wonder the antidepressants work only in half of the people diagnosed with it. As Goldberg put it in 2011, “the DSM diagnosis of major depression is made when a patient has any 5 out of 9 symptoms, several of which are opposites [emphasis added]”! He was referring to DSM-4, not that the 5 is much different. I mean, paraphrasing Goldberg, you really don’t need much of a degree other than some basic intro class in the physiology of whatever, anything really, to suspect that someone who’s sleeping a lot, gains weight, has increased appetite, appears tired or slow to others, and feels worthless might have a different cause for these symptoms than someone who has daily insomnias, lost weight recently, has decreased appetite, is hyperagitated, irritable, and feels excessive guilt. Imagine how much more understanding we would have about depression if scientists didn’t use the DSM for research. No wonder that there’s a lot of head scratching when your hypothesis, which is logically correct, paradigmatically coherent, internally consistent, flawlessly tested, turns out to be correct only sometimes because you’re ‘depressed’ subjects are as a homogeneous group as a pack of Trail Mix.

I got sidetracked again. This time ranting against DSM. No matter, I’m back on track. So. The good thing about the work done trying to figure out how antidepressants work and psychiatrists’ minds work (DSM is written overwhelmingly by psychiatrists), scientists uncovered other things about depression. Some of the findings became clumped under the name ‘the neurotrophic hypothesis of depression’ in the early naughts. It stems from the finding that some chemicals needed by neurons for their cellular happiness are in low amount in depression. Almost two decades later, the hypothesis became mainstream theory as it explains away some other findings in depression, and is not incompatible with the monoamines’ behavior. Another piece of the puzzle found.

One of these neurotrophins is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes cell survival and growth. Crucially, it also regulates synaptic plasticity, without which there would be no learning and no memory. The idea is that exposure to adverse events generates stress. Stress is differently managed by different people, largely due to genetic factors. In those not so lucky at the genetic lottery (how hard they take a stressor, how they deal with it), and in those lucky enough at genetics but not so lucky in life (intense and/or many stressors hit the organism hard regardless how well you take it or how good you are at it), stress kills a lot of neurons, literally, prevents new ones from being born, and prevents the remaining ones from learning well. Including learning on how to deal with the stressors, present and future, so the next time an adverse event happens, even if it is a minor stressor, the person is way more drastically affected. in other words, stress makes you more vulnerable to stressors. One of the ways stress is doing all these is by suppressing BDNF synthesis. Without BDNF, the individual exposed to stress that is exacerbated either by genes or environment ends up unable to self-regulate mood successfully. The more that mood is not regulated, the worse the brain becomes at self-regulating because the elements required for self-regulation, which include learning from experience, are busted. And so the vicious circle continues.

Maintaining this vicious circle is the ability of stressors to change the patterns of DNA expression and, not surprisingly, one of the most common findings is that the BDNF gene is hypermethylated in depression. Hypermethylation is an epigenetic change (a change around the DNA, not in the DNA itself), meaning that the gene in question is less expressed. This means lower amounts of BDNF are produced in depression.

After this long introduction, the today’s paper is a systematic review of one of epigenetic changes in depression: methylation. The 67 articles that investigated the role of methylation in depression were too heterogeneous to make a meta-analysis out of them, so Li et al. (2019) made a systematic review.

The main finding was that, overall, depression is associated with DNA methylation modifications. Two genes stood out as being hypermethylated: our friend BDNF and SLC6A4, a gene involved in the serotonin cycle. Now the question is who causes who: is stress methylating your DNA or does your methylated DNA make you more vulnerable to stress? There’s evidence both ways. Vicious circle, as I said. I doubt that for the sufferer it matters who started it first, but for the researchers it does.

151 bdnf 5htt people - Copy

A little disclaimer: the picture I painted above offers a non-exclusive view on the causes of depression(s). There’s more. There’s always more. Gut microbes are in the picture too. And circulatory problems. And more. But the picture is more than half done, I daresay. Continuing my puzzle metaphor, we got the rabbit by the ears. Now what to do with it…

Well, one thing we can do with it, even with only half-rabbit done, is shout loud and clear that depression is a physical disease. And those who claim it can be cured by a positive attitude and blame the sufferers for not ‘trying hard enough’ or not ‘smiling more’ or not ‘being more positive’ can bloody well shut up and crawl back in the medieval cave they came from.


1. Li M, D’Arcy C, Li X, Zhang T, Joober R, & Meng X (4 Feb 2019). What do DNA methylation studies tell us about depression? A systematic review. Translational Psychiatry, 9(1):68. PMID: 30718449, PMCID: PMC6362194, DOI: 10.1038/s41398-019-0412-y. ARTICLE | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

2. Goldberg D (Oct 2011). The heterogeneity of “major depression”. World Psychiatry, 10(3):226-8. PMID: 21991283, PMCID: PMC3188778. ARTICLE | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

3. World Health Organization Depression Fact Sheet

By Neuronicus, 23 April 2019

Tryptophan-rich foods and happiness

angry-woman public domainThe paper I feature today is not an experimental study, but an editorial written as a short review (5 pages). A not very good one, I’m afraid.

Neurochemical imbalances are to be found in virtual any brain disorder. Probably the most known is the serotonin depletion associated to depression, which is the main reason why SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are so widely prescribed for the disorder. With the caveats that serotonin is but one player, that it has many receptors involved in different aspects of the disease and “depression” is an umbrella term for a host of behaviors, this editorial focuses on non-pharmacological ways to address the depletion of serotonin. Noble goal, poor execution.

In a nutshell, Young (2007) argues that there are 4 ways to increase serotonin availability in the brain:
1) effortful focusing on positive things, either via psychotherapy, talk, social interactions, mediation or just mental exercises to consciously improve mood. I’m sure that the thought of trying to focus on the positive thoughts never crossed the minds of depressed people! Of course that this is how healthy people regulate their moods, everybody is sad or suffers loss at some point in their life and a lot of people snap out of it by engaging in those suggested behaviors, but the trouble with depression is that it persists despite efforts to be positive. The author should know that crying “Cheer up!” to a depressed person never works, but chances are they would feel even more alienated because they’ve tried that already!
2) exposure to bright light (3000 lux). No contention here. Light therapy is successful in treating seasonal depression. We should all get more light.
3) exercise. It’s unclear which kind, aerobic or to fatigue, but probably either would work.
4) eating tryptophan-rich foods (like meat, cheeses or eggs). Why tryptophan? Because the brain can make serotonin out of tryptophan, but serotonin itself is too big of a molecule to enter the brain (i.e. doesn’t cross the brain blood barrier). But the author admits that “although purified tryptophan increases brain serotonin, foods containing tryptophan do not” (p. 396) soooo,… then eating tryptophan-rich foods will NOT increase the serotonin. But then he goes on saying that drinking milk or eating nixtamalized corn increases serotonin (verbatim: “Acute ingestion of alpha-lactalbumin by humans can improve mood and cognition in some circumstances, presumably owing to increased serotonin” and “Breeding corn with a higher tryptophan content was shown in the 1980s to prevent pellagra; presumably, it also raised brain serotonin” p. 396-397). Utterly confusing and self-contradictory.

I also want to make a big note here:
a) there is no reliable evidence that eating tryptophan-rich foods increases the brain serotonin. Otherwise, instead of paying for Prozac, you would buy a huge bottle of tryptophan pills from the nearest dietary supplements store. Which brings me to my second point:
b) why don’t we give tryptophan supplements instead of SSRIs? Tryptophan is sold in USA as a dietary supplement which I think is a tremendously dangerous thing to allow (in most EU countries is considered a drug, so you can’t buy it from the shoddy dietary supplements stores). Because its efficacy in depression is inconclusive at best, i.e. most studies did not find significant improvements, while others showed improvement only in a subpopulation of depression sufferers. But it can induce nausea, sleepiness, confusion, depression, and even dementia symptoms and death. And interacts badly with other drugs or even with carbohydrate-rich foods, like pizza or pasta.

This is definitely not among the best papers I have read. It has many speculations supported by un-replicated studies. Or, when such studies are sparse, the reasoning relies on evolutionary speculations elevated to the rank of causal explanations (e.g. we spend so much time indoors, therefore depression is on the rise; conversely, our ancestors spent more time outside, therefore they were happier). Although I agree with Young that we should invest more research into non-pharmacological ways to improve brain dysfunctions, we need to do so in a more pragmatical manner that just telling people to think positive. Ok, rant over.

Reference: Young SN (Nov 2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 32(6):394-399. PMID:18043762, PMCID:PMC2077351. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 3 December 2015

Putative mechanism for decreased spermatogenesis following SSRI

fishThe SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants around the world. Whether is Prozac, Zoloft or Celexa, chances are that 1 in 4 Americans (or 1 in 10, depending on the study) will be making a decision during their lifetime to start an antidepressant course or not. And yet adherence to treatment is significantly low, as many people get off the SSRI due to their side effects, one of the main complains being sexual dysfunction in the form of low libido and pleasure.

Now a new study finds a mechanism for an even more worrisome effect of citalopram, (Celexa), an SSRI: the reduction of spermatogenesis. Prasad et al. (2015) used male zebrafish as a model and exposed them to citalopram in 3 different doses for 2- or 4-weeks period. They found out that the expression in the brain of the serotonin-related genes (trp2 and sert) and gonadotropin genes (lhb, sdhb, gnrh2, and gnrh3) were differently affected depending on the dose and durations of treatment. In the testes, the “long-term medium- and high-dose citalopram treatments displayed a drastic decrease in the developmental stages of spermatogenesis as well as in the matured sperm cell count” (p. 5). The authors also looked at how the neurons are organized and they found out that the serotonin fibers are associated with the fibers of the neurons that release gonadotropin-releasing hormone 3 (GnRH3) in preoptic area, a brain region in the hypothalamus heavily involved in sexual and parental behavior in both humans and fish.

Shortly put, in the brain, the citalopram affects gene expression profiles and fiber density of the serotonin neurons, which in turn decreases the production of GnRH3, which may account for the sexual dysfunctions that follow citalopram. In the testes, citalopram may act directly by binding to the local serotonin receptors and decrease spermatogenesis.

Reference: Prasad P, Ogawa S, & Parhar IS. (Oct 2015, Epub 8 Jul 2015). Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor Citalopram Inhibits GnRH Synthesis and Spermatogenesis in the Male Zebrafish. Biololy of Reproduction. 93(4):102, 1-10. doi: 10.1095/biolreprod.115.129965. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 11 November 2015

How long does it take for environmental enrichment to show effects?

From funnyvet.
From funnyvet.

Environmental enrichment is a powerful way to give a boost to neurogenesis and alleviate some anxiety and depression symptoms. For the laboratory rodents, who spend their lives in cages with water and food access, environmental enrichment can refer to as little as a toy or two or as much as large room colonies with different size tubes, different levels to explore, nesting materials, plenty of toys with various shapes, textures, and colors, exercise wheels, and even the occasional fruit or peanut butter snack. But for how long does a mouse need to be exposed to enrichment to show cognitive and emotional improvement?

Leger et al. (2015) ran several anxiety, depression, and long-term memory tests in mice who have been exposed to environmental enrichment for 24 h, 1, 3, or 5 weeks. Although 24 h exposure was enough to improve memory, only after 3-week exposure some anxiety behaviors were attenuated. No effect on depressive behaviors or coticosterone levels, which may be due to that particular strain of mouse (several other studies found that environmental enrichment ameliorates depressive symptoms in other mice strains and rats). The 3-week exposure also increased the levels of serotonin in the frontal cortex. Only after 5-eweek exposure there was a significant survival rate of the hippocampal new cells. Of note, these were normal mice, i.e. they were not suffering from any disorder prior to exposure.

Mice raised in an impoverished environment (a) show less dendrite growth (c) than do mice raised in an enriched environment (b, d). Copyright: BSCS.
Mice raised in an impoverished environment (a) show less dendrite growth (c) than do mice raised in an enriched environment (b, d). Copyright: BSCS.

The findings give us a nice timeline for environmental enrichment to show its desired effects. But… if there are differences in the timeline and effects of environmental enrichment exposure from mouse strain to mouse strain, then what can we say for humans? Probably not much, unfortunately. As the ad nauseam overused phrase goes at the end of so many papers, ‘more research is needed to elucidate this problem’.

Reference: Leger M, Paizanis E, Dzahini K, Quiedeville A, Bouet V, Cassel JC, Freret T, Schumann-Bard P, & Boulouard M. (Nov 2015, Epub 5 Jun 2014). Environmental Enrichment Duration Differentially Affects Behavior and Neuroplasticity in Adult Mice. Cerebral Cortex, 25(11):4048-61. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhu119. Article | FREE PDF

By Neuronicus, 1 November 2015