Protein-Based Depression Test is a Possibility
> 3/12/2008 12:37:50 PM

In a development that could dramatically improve future depression treatments, researchers have discovered a unique protein placement pattern in the brain cells of severely depressed individuals. This protein appears to be a precise biomarker for depression, and using this newfound knowledge, they predict an ability to more efficiently identify cases of chronic depression and quickly determine how successful certain medications will be in its treatment.

The research in question revolved around a protein subtype known as Gs alpha. This substance, labeled a "signaling" protein, spurs activity among certain neurotransmitters which then carry messages to other cells outlining their respective duties. The study, sponsored in part by a suicide prevention group, also veered toward the macabre: researchers compared the brains of suicide victims who'd been diagnosed with severe depression to those of living controls with no history of psychiatric disorders. Among the deceased, they found that a considerable portion of this communicative Gs protein was, for an unknown reason, abnormally located in a segment of each cell membrane known as the lipid raft.

While these rafts - spaces in the cell's "skin" that are enriched by cholesterol to have an adhesive quality and have been described as "thick, viscous, almost gluey" - seem to facilitate the transfer of certain neurotransmitters, the Gs alpha does not normally fall within their vicinity. In the affected individuals, these protein molecules appeared to have become stuck in the cellular goo, unable to perform regulatory duties like activating the ever-present neurotransmitter serotonin. According to the study's conclusions, this abnormality leads to clinical depression severe enough to inspire suicide.

The components of various antidepressant medications have previously been observed to accumulate within these lipid rafts, and researchers in this study noted that this chemical change seems to free the Gs alpha proteins from the lipid rafts' hold, allowing them to resume their standard functions. The exact reasons for this interaction are, again, unclear. But its implications are significant: researchers explicitly discussed the possibility of pre-emptively identifying individuals at risk for depression by examining the placement of these proteins in relation to the lipid section of the cell membrane. They also noted that the actions of these proteins may explain why antidepressants take so long to begin working and that the status of the Gs alphas may be used as a reliable indicator of the efficacy of antidepressant medications - if the proteins remain lodged in the rafts, the medication is not performing its chemical duties.

The delayed effect of antidepressants, which typically take at least four to six weeks to create noticeable results, has often been a point of complaint for severely affected individuals. Determining the physical and, more importantly, emotional efficiency of these medications often proves to be a trying task for patients who desperately need relief, and the study's results could help doctors hasten that process. Researchers estimate that, armed with this data and the ability to perform related blood tests, they could soon be able to measure a drug's success or failure in less than a week and avoid wasting precious time on ineffective medications.

This discovery highlights the limits of our knowledge regarding depression's biological basis and the chemical actions of the drugs we use to treat it. But it also hints at the limitless potential of treatments to come. The specialists responsible for this study have already begun further work designed to build upon these revelations, and while their findings will almost certainly not apply to every individual seeking treatment for depression, the patterns are clear. The study's affected subjects tragically ended their own lives before they were able to share in this success, but their posthumous contributions may very well prove to be the foundation for life-changing treatments in the future.

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