Going Beyond Serotonin in Depression
4 pathways besides serotonin that can help us understand the neurobiology of depression
Scientific research is moving away from the idea that serotonin explains depression
A wide variety of other pathways in the brain may be a better way of understanding depression neurobiology
Neuroplasticity and inflammation are implicated in depression, and we may be able to change both with lifestyle modification
Gut-brain and hormonal changes have both been linked to depression, and again there's lots we can do to positively affect these systems, including dietary changes and other lifestyle modification
For the last half-century, the dominant explanation for depression has centered on serotonin. The basic idea: low levels of brain serotonin or serotonin activity leads to symptoms of depression. This theory, which is known as the “serotonin hypothesis,” is based on several data points, including animal research and the effects of antidepressants that are supposed to work by increasing brain serotonin levels. There are a number of misconceptions about how serotonin works, but in the last several decades, a number of researchers have challenged the idea that serotonin plays a principal or even major role in depression.
In recent days, the serotonin hypothesis of depression has been explicitly challenged by a number of scientific publications. Most notable (at the time of this writing), a paper published in Nature Molecular Psychiatry reviewed several lines of evidence on the subject of the serotonin-depression connection and concluded that “the main areas of serotonin research provide no consistent evidence of there being an association between serotonin and depression, and no support for the hypothesis that depression is caused by lowered serotonin activity or concentrations.”
Datapoints like this recent study point to a major question: if serotonin isn’t driving depression, what does explain the brain state of the hundreds of millions of people living with it? While there are many potential explanations, here are 4 major systems that may prove more important in the brains of people with depression, and some ways we may be able to target them.
1. Brain Rewiring (Neuroplasticity)
One of the most empowering results of neuroscience research is the idea that our brains are constantly being rewired. Specifically, our neurons are actively changing the number and strength of their connections to other neurons and to non-neuron brain cells called “glia.” This is a process called “neuroplasticity,” and it’s increasingly thought to play a role in mood disorders like depression.
Supporting factors for the neuroplasticity-depression connection include imaging findings, cell study research as well as measurements of labs connected to the rewiring process. The basic idea is that in depression, there may be issues with the quality, number and type of connections our neurons make, and this may help explain depression symptoms. Importantly, research is showing that we may be able to positively affect neuroplasticity though lifestyle factors like exercise, learning new things and potentially certain dietary modifications. There’s also data showing that conventional antidepressants as well as psychedelics may positively influence neuroplasticity.
The planet had a wake-up call to the significance of immune health in the context of the pandemic. But immune health is linked to far more than just risk for infectious disease. In the world of neuroscience and affective disorders, immune activation and especially inflammation is thought of as a risk factor for the development of conditions like depression. Higher levels of inflammation in our bloodstream has been shown to be risk factor for development of depression as well as generally worse brain function.
When excess or chronic inflammation is present in the brain, it appears to influence a number of pathways involved in depression. First, it may impair the healthy function of neurons by physically damaging them. Inflammation also may block healthy neuroplasticity, while leading to the generation of toxic breakdown molecules like quinolinic acid that could further damage neuron health and contribute to depressive pathology. Within the brain, research shows that unique immune cells called microglia may be key to sustaining inflammation. So how is our inflammatory status regulated? It appears to be sensitive to the quality of our diet, sleep, exercise, stress-lowering interventions and potentially even nature exposure.
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3. The Gut-Brain Connection
The gut is home to trillions of bacteria and the majority of our immune cells, making it a major hub for information transfer. A wide range of research now suggests that the gut and the brain are in constant communication, and it’s been proposed that this data exchange may have an effect on everything from our cognitive state to our mood. Researchers have proposed that the state of our gut health (e.g. the leakiness of our gut lining, the immune cells in the gut and the diversity of the microbes that live in our gut) plays a major role in our mental health and may significantly influence depression symptomatology.
One of the most impressive aspects of our gut is the quantity and diversity of microbes that call it home. These bugs make up the gut microbiome. Alterations in the bacteria that live in the gut microbiome have been linked to depression. It’s thought that these bacteria may influence brain function through their effects on the vagus nerve (which runs from the gut to the brain), their impact on the immune system (e.g., by affecting levels of inflammation), and through tiny molecules they create (e.g., short-chain fatty acids) which may reach the brain by way of the bloodstream.
4. Endocrine (Hormonal) Changes
When it comes to regulation of brain function, a wide range of hormone pathways are thought to play important roles. This research extends to depression. And while certain hormonal changes can be hard to reverse, there’s also much we can do to help improve aspects of our endocrine signaling pathways.
Likely the strongest endocrine-depression connection, dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (aka the stress system) is thought to significantly increase risk for depression. For example, people with an episode of major depression are 2.5x more likely to have experienced a stressful event prior, and a single high-stress event has been found to increase risk for a depressive episode by 1.4x. Issues with HPA system balance may contribute to depression by negatively impacting the hippocampus, increasing inflammation, damaging neuroplasticity and even killing off neurons. A number of strategies have been shown to be successful in regulating HPA function ranging from daily meditation to regular exercise to time in nature.
Another important link between hormones and depression relates to estrogen. This hormone is thought to have a number of brain-protective roles, including enhancing neuroplasticity. It has been proposed that declining levels of estrogen and related hormones during and after menopause may help explain the higher rates of depression seen by women in this period. While some research suggests that estrogen replacement therapies may present an interesting treatment strategy, there’s still considerable debate around the safety of this practice.
Insulin is a key metabolic hormone that facilitates uptake of glucose by cells throughout the body. In the brain, insulin is thought to regulate blood sugar as well as influence memory and behavior. Insulin resistance is an increasingly common condition of metabolic dysfunction where our bodies have trouble sensing insulin and using glucose, and it’s now been linked to a substantially higher risk of developing depression. A wide range of techniques can help improve insulin resistance in most people, especially those related to dietary modification and exercise.
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A version of this article I wrote was also published on Psychologytoday.com