In the "Whoa, we live in the future!" moment of the week, researchers at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City report they have identified a gene responsible for depression. Could replacing the gene cure depression?
Neuroscience Michael Kaplitt and co-author of the paper in the journal Science Translational Medicine said in a statement, "We potentially have a novel therapy to target what we now believe is one root cause of human depression."
Kaplitt's team looked at the activity of a gene called p11 in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, an area responsible for feelings of reward, pleasure, and laughter. When doctors are determining whether to give a diagnosis of depression, one of the key symptoms they look for is anhedonia, or the inability to derive pleasure or satisfaction from previously-enjoyed activities.
Kaplitt's team conducted studies on depressed mice who lacked motivation to squirm away when held by their tales or pass swimming tests. When these mice were given an injection of a virus that restored p11 to normal levels, their behavior was transformed.
But a successful gene switcheroo on mice doesn't necessarily prove that the results would be the same for humans. The team looked at human brain samples from depressed people and found that their levels of p11 were significantly lower than people without depression. The hope is that a similar gene replacement therapy in humans could produce comparable depression-eradicating results. But with gene replacement therapy still considered highly experimental and given the complexity of human depression, any such treatment is a few years away, and being looked at with some skepticism by others in the field.
"A very elegant and exciting study, it's going to have a major impact - but I would question any result pointing toward a simple cause for depression," neuroscientist Eric Stone of the New York University School of Medicine told USA Today.
David Antonuccio, a psychologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Nevada School of Medicine in Reno, voiced similar concerns to a reporter at Bloomberg: "My worry would be for the unintended and unexpected consequences of altering genes in humans. With drug research, at least the drug can be stopped."
Antonuccio also pointed out a leap that he gives him pause. Low levels of P11 could as easily be a result of depression as the cause of it. "That is the problem with most correlational results. Correlation does not mean causation."
But Kaplitt, who USA Today reports has financial ties to biomedical companies involved in commercializing p11 treatments, says it would be a mistake to not continue down this road of research:"Current therapies for depression treat symptoms but not underlying causes, and while that works for many patients, those with advanced depression, or depression that does not respond to medication, could hopefully benefit from our approach."
With the World Health Organization reporting that depression affects 121 million people worldwide, and affecting at least 13 million U.S. adults each year, Kaplitt might have a point. Then again, tampering with the brain seems like serious business. But don't many great scientific leaps start out a little scary?
What do you think: Does gene replacement therapy seem a little too sci-fi? Or for those suffering from lifelong depression, does it seem like a miracle of science?
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