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Scientists have discovered a new molecular mechanism for responsible for the most common symptom of depression: the inability to experience pleasure.
As many as one in six Americans suffer from major depression at some point in their lives. The treatment options are inadequate with as many as 50% not responding to current drug offerings. Medications today increase levels of one or another of two small molecules that some nerve cells use to signal each other. There’s not a lot of variety.
The new drug target is a hormone known to affect appetite which turns off the brain’s ability to experience pleasure when an animal is under stress. The hormone, known as melanocortin, signals the reward circuit, making the animal feel good when certain behaviors are experienced, like eating, sex and warmth of secure shelter.
Scientist used a novel approach to test the theory on mice. First they created stressed and technically depressed mice with days of restricted behaviors. They measured brain activity and hormone levels. When they introduced melanocortin to the mice, the “depression” increased.
Melanocortin is already on the radar with drug companies. Pharmaceutical treatments for eating disorders are woefully short and it is currently being researched for that application. Since they have melanocortin inhibitors at their disposal, this study will hopefully inspire tests to treat anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure. Furthermore, it could be used to treat similar symptoms in schizophrenia, as well as for terminally ill people who have given up the will to live.
Source: Stanford Medical Center, MedicalNewsToday
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