Impaired adult neurogenesis leads to depression – is it realistic?

depressionAbout a year ago we published a paper linking adult neurogenesis to depression. A causal sort of ‘linking’, right? I mean, we found that, when adult neurogenesis was eliminated, mice had elevated glucocorticoids in response to stress and showed depressive-like behaviours1. So doesn’t this mean that impaired adult neurogenesis could lead to depression in humans, in the real world?

Well, it could…and we did end our paper with the following:

Because the production of new granule neurons is itself strongly regulated by stress and glucocorticoids, this system forms a loop through which stress, by inhibiting adult neurogenesis, could lead to enhanced responsiveness to future stress. This type of programming could be adaptive, predisposing animals to behave in ways best suited to the severity of their particular environments. However, maladaptive progression of such a feed-forward loop could potentially lead to increased stress responsiveness and depressive behaviours that persist even in the absence of stressful events.

We had to end it somehow – I was just happy that after 3 years of work we were DONE2! But our final speculation makes it clear that, while this chapter may be done, the story is not. And this fact was rightly pointed out in a recent commentary by Lucassen et al. in Molecular Psychiatry3, where they continue the discussion and bring up some good points. Here is a loose elaboration on some of the outstanding issues they bring up. Continue reading

In press: The neurogenesis-depression hypothesis, confirmed.

A transgenic tool for eliminating adult neurogenesis.

The idea that adult neurogenesis protects individuals from depression is perhaps the single greatest motivator driving neurogenesis research. Not surprisingly, “neurogenesis depression” is the most common behavioral keyword that brings people to this blog (followed closely by “pattern separation”). So I’m excited to say that we will soon be publishing what (I think) is the best evidence that impaired adult neurogenesis actually causes depressive symptoms (in mice). The neurogenesis-depression hypothesis is over 10 years old and yet there is largely only correlational evidence linking neurogenesis to depression and no direct evidence that impaired adult neurogenesis leads to depressive symptoms. Naturally, this has led to skepticism (e.g. see this paper by Robert Sapolsky, and discussion by fellow bloggers: scicurious, neurocritic, neuroskeptic). A key factor in our study was stress: mice that lacked neurogenesis often seemed very normal when they were happily going about their business (as in previous studies by other groups). However, following stress, mice lacking neurogenesis had elevated levels of stress hormones and they also showed more depressive behaviors (or depressive-like, if you prefer). I hope to go into more detail soon.

For now, here is the abstract:

Adult hippocampal neurogenesis buffers stress responses and depressive behaviour. Jason S. Snyder, Amélie Soumier, Michelle Brewer, James Pickel & Heather A. Cameron. National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.

Glucocorticoids are released in response to stressful experiences and serve many beneficial homeostatic functions. However, dysregulation of glucocorticoids is associated with cognitive impairments and depressive illness. In the hippocampus, a brain region densely populated with receptors for stress hormones, stress and glucocorticoids strongly inhibit adult neurogenesis. Decreased neurogenesis has been implicated in the pathogenesis of anxiety and depression, but direct evidence for this role is lacking. Here we show that adult-born hippocampal neurons are required for normal expression of the endocrine and behavioural components of the stress response. Using either transgenic or radiation methods to specifically inhibit adult neurogenesis, we find that glucocorticoid levels are slower to recover after moderate stress and are less suppressed by dexamethasone in neurogenesis-deficient mice than intact mice, consistent with a role for the hippocampus in regulation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. Relative to controls, neurogenesis-deficient mice showed increased food avoidance in a novel environment after acute stress, increased behavioural despair in the forced swim test, and decreased sucrose preference, a measure of anhedonia. These findings identify a small subset of neurons within the dentate gyrus that are critical for hippocampal negative control of the HPA axis and support a direct role for adult neurogenesis in depressive illness.

*image is of GFAP-driven thymidine kinase in a mouse brain (GFAP in green and thymidine kinase in red). In the presence of ganciclovir, any cell that expresses thymidine kinase dies when it attempts to divide. In this case those cells would be the radial glial stem cells that produce new neurons. These were the mice used to stop neurogenesis in the majority of the experiments.

UPDATE: Ed Yong at Discover Magazine and Scicurious at Scientific American have great summaries of the findings and their significance. And the Drugmonkey blog attacks the question of whether or not a depression study in mice can be relevant for humans.