Depression is a debilitating illness that affects millions of people a year. The World Health Organization reports that, despite the availability of treatment, only 30% of global cases receive adequate care. In the United States and Canada alone, nearly one in ten people suffers from depression. Many have problems functioning at work or at home, and those suffering from depression are at higher risk for committing suicide. Traditionally, one of the most popular methods for treating depression has been anti-depressant medications.
However, new hope is on the horizon. Researchers at the University of Toronto and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) have made a very important discovery. By studying brains from autopsies, they have discovered that coupling between two dopamine receptors is highly elevated in the brains of those afflicted with depression. They examined a particular dopamine signaling mechanism in order to locate spots where the two receptors bind to one another. Their findings have further led them to investigate ways to interrupt the coupling of those receptors to produce an anti-depressant effect—a goal that they have successfully achieved.
According to Dr. Fang Liu, Principal Investigator and Senior Scientist in CAMH’s Neuroscience Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, the team has essentially pinpointed where to target new anti-depressant treatments. Because of their research, a new protein peptide has been developed. The new protein peptide provides the missing link and is what disrupts the coupling of the two dopamine receptors in the brain.
Dr. Liu’s team then tested the new protein peptide in an animal setting to compare its effects to that of traditional anti-depressant medications. The team found that depression-related behaviors were vastly improved after applying the new protein. In fact, the results achieved from the new protein peptide were the same as that of the anti-depressant medications tested.
In effect, this would open the door to new methods of treatment for those suffering from depression. Conventional anti-depressant medications block serotonin or norepinephrine transporters in the brain. The problem with these medications is twofold – 1) they don’t work for everyone, and 2) they can often have nasty side effects. Some even worsen the chance of suicidal thoughts and tendencies.
Since depression is one of the biggest causes of disability in the world, it is commanding more attention. Dr. Liu hopes that the discovery of the protein peptide will provide new treatment options with fewer side effects for those suffering from depression.