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A new factor in depression? Brain protein discovery could lead to better treatments

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People who suffer from depression feel low and down “ that is how depression is explained is layman words. Previous researches on depression have indicated that depressed brains often have less key components than non-depressed brains. However, a recent research have indicated that depression can also mean too much of something. It has been found that people suffering from major depression have 32 percent more of a protein called fibroblast growth factor 9 or FGF9 than normal beings, in a part of their brains. When the FGF9 levels were raised artificially in rats, they started exhibiting depression like behavior. Also, when they were made to undergo social stress, the FGF9 levels rose.


This finding can significantly help in the development of better medications to treat depression “ an ailment that affect millions of Americans. The role of FGF9 was discovered by a team from the University of Michigan Medical School and the Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Disorders Research Consortium. Their results were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Years of detailed comparisons of brain tissue donated by people with and without depression, and multiple studies in rats lead to this discovery.


Elyse Aurbach, a neuroscience doctoral student who is also the paper’s co-first author said that fixing depression is not easy as it is a disorder at the level of the circuits that connect brain cells, and many regions of the brain are involved. However, it is the first time that the role of FGF9 has been linked with depression as it is found to be active in a critical area of the brain for the disorder. The discovery looks promising and further studies will help us in determining what is going on.


Aurbach along with her mentor Huda Akil, Ph.D worked with several universities to make the discovery. The brain bank at the University of California, Irvine, was key to their work. Their study focussed on fibroblast growth factors, molecules involved in cell growth and maintenance in brain and in other parts of the body. For years, they have also studied FGF2 molecules and have tried to figure out why its levels are low in people with depression and other mental health issues. That is why the researchers were surprised when FGF9 levels were found higher in the brains of people who had depression compared to those who had not.


The researchers made the finding using post-mortem brain samples from the Pritzker collection”36 depressed and 56 non-depressed brains in all. It took three different kinds of microarray gene expression studies and a confirming test called quantitative PCR, to look at all the genetic activity that was going on when these brain donors died, specifically in the hippocampus of the brain. Crucial for memory, learning and stress control, this area of the brain is found to be smaller in people with depression. Their experiment showed higher FGF9 levels in the depressed brains. Also, the levels of several other fibroblast growth factors were down when FGF9 was up.


These results intrigued them to experiment further on rats. They tried to determine if FGF9 rises in response to something, like stress, or if levels are naturally higher and predispose someone to depression. When they exposed the rats to social stress for 10 days, the FGF9 level in various regions of the brain’s hippocampus increased and the rats began to exhibit more depression like symptoms. They even experimented by injection FGF9 injections into the rat brains and the rats began showing depression like behavior.


In the next stage of their research, Aurbach, Akil and their colleagues are performing more experiments to find out why FGF9 production rises, how FGF9 levels affect other brain regions and communication among brain cells. Since, the molecule is important in the lungs and blood vessels, caution is very much needed in finding the right for medications to affect FGF9 levels.

A patent application has also been filed and is being managed by the Pritzker Consortium.

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