Researchers Link Gene to the Antidepressant Effect of Exercise
> 12/4/2007 11:05:39 AM

We have previously discussed the benefits of even a small amount of exercise on mental health, especially for patients with depression, and researchers continue to show that physical activity can improve mental as well as physical well-being. In a new study, researchers from Yale investigated why exercise can have this positive effect on mental health. They identified genes that are enhanced by exercise, and one gene in particular appears to play a role in the antidepressant qualities of physical activity.

The researchers, headed by Dr. Ronald Duman, used a microarray, a custom designed tool that allowed them to observe how exercise affects brain activity in lab mice. They focused specifically on the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with mood regulation which is involved in the brain's response to antidepressants. By comparing the brain activity of two groups of mice, those with access to a running wheel and those without, the researchers were able to identify 33 genes affected by physical activity, 27 of which had not previously been identified. Time spent on the wheel had a particularly large impact on a gene responsible for the nerve growth factor VGF, proteins that aid in the development and maintenance of nerve cells. A synthetic version of VGF appeared to have the same effect as an antidepressant on mice, while blocking the VGF gene caused mice to experience symptoms of depression and inhibited the effects of exercise.

The results of this study could lead to new and perhaps superior medications for treating depression. Patients often try more than one antidepressant and must wait weeks or months for an antidepressant to begin working. Ultimately, antidepressants prove successful for only about 65% of patients. By discovering new information about pathways in the brain that can improve the symptoms of depression, researchers can develop medications that differ from those currently available. As Dr. Duman explains in the Yale Daily News, "It is conceivable that VGF could produce a better anti-depressant than what's available today, or [it could] at least offer an alternative approach."

Past studies have already shown that exercise has a positive effect upon mental health, and if researchers continue to investigate the link between depression and physical activity, they should be able to better understand this connection and perhaps develop new treatment methods. 16% of Americans suffer from depression, and with more treatment options available, more people will be able to find relief from their symptoms.

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