New Treatment Avenue For Social Anxiety and Depression

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If you suffer from depression or social anxiety, it may be partly because you have overactive GABA neurons, those neurons that primarily secrete the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acids (GABA).

Scientists Olivier Berton, Ph.D. and Sheryl Beck, Ph.D. have been studying the effect of GABA neurons on the brain’s release of serotonin. Their recently published results have significant implications for the treatment of mood disorders.

“This is the first time that GABA neuron activity - found deep in the brainstem - has been shown to play a key role in the cognitive processes associated with social approach or avoidance behavior in mammals,” said Dr. Berton.

GABA Sleuthing

The study involved some unfortunate mice that were subject to bullying and subsequently became socially avoidant. Their avoidance behavior resembled that of people with symptoms of mood disorders who frequently withdraw from social pressures.

Protein expression and electrical brain activity in the bullied mice indicated that their GABA neurons had become over-active. The excited GABA neurons “put a brake” on neighboring serotonin neurons, inhibiting the release of this mood-enhancing neurotransmitter.

The Plot Thickens

The researchers then applied the amazing technology of optogenetics, the use of light to switch the activity of specific brain neurons on or off. While mice were exposed to bullying, their overheated GABA neurons were optogenetically deactivated. This means there was no GABA “brake” inhibiting their serotonin cells. This group of bullied mice did not develop avoidance behaviors.

“Our results provide a novel cellular understanding of how social defensiveness and social withdrawal develop in mice and gives us a stepping stone to better understand the basis of similar social symptoms in humans,” said Dr. Berton.

A Possible New Target For Meds

Many antidepressants used today are SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They work to keep serotonin available in the brain, and this helps alleviate depressive symptoms in about half of depressed individuals. The other 50 percent of those depressed may need a medication that targets a different neurotransmitter.

Dr. Berton continues, “The results point to a new direction to understand why current antidepressants, which are used to treat depression and social phobia, may not work for everyone and how to make them work better - by targeting GABA neurons that put the brake on serotonin cells.”

Source: Brain and Behavior

 
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