Blood marker used to detect predisposition to depression

September 15 2011

When rats are subject to intense stress, only those who experience lasting alterations to the neural structure in specific areas of the brain develop symptoms of depression after a further stressful episode. These findings were recently discovered by a team led by Jean-Jacques Benoliel from the Brain & Spine Institute research centre (UPMC/Inserm U975/CNRS) at the Hôpital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière. Their research has also characterized a reliable biomarker in rats that makes it possible to detect vulnerability to depression.

The results have just been published in the Journal of Neuroscience. They open up new horizons in terms of recognizing and preventing the predisposition to depression within risk populations.

Predisposition to depression may be genetic or acquired, for example it may result from intense stress (loss of a loved one, divorce) or continued stress (in the workplace, etc.). For some patients, depression is only triggered following a further stressful episode (however mild). In this way, the initial stress leaves a trace in the brain since it modifies neural networks in a long-lasting manner. These individuals are considered “at risk”, i.e. it is very likely they will develop depression if they suffer from an additional period of stress.

In order to recognize these at-risk populations, it is essential to characterize vulnerability to depression. To research this issue, Jean-Jacques Benoliel's team focussed their efforts on a model reproducing intense social stress in rats. This protocol caused a modification to the neural structure in specific areas of the brain, particularly in the hippocampus, an area involved in several learning and memorization processes. At the same time, BDNF (a molecule involved in cell growth) levels strongly decreased, both in the hippocampus and in the blood.

After a few weeks, half the stressed animals had returned to their normal state, whereas the other half still presented neuronal modifications and low BDNF levels. After a renewed period of less intensive stress, symptoms of depression were only apparent in the second group, thus identifying it as a vulnerable population. The researchers were then able to characterise BDNF levels in the blood as a biomarker for predisposition to depression.

This study opens provides new insight into the identification of individuals from an at-risk population who are predisposed to developing depression. The objective is to develop an early pharmacological and/or behavioural therapy designed to prevent the development of the illness.

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"Vulnerability to Depression: From Brain Neuroplasticity to Identification of Biomarkers"

The Journal of Neuroscience, September 7, 2011

Aurélie Blugeot,1,2,3*, Cyril Rivat,1,2,3*, Elodie Bouvier,1,2,3, Jenny Molet,1,2.3, Amandine Mouchard,1,2,3, Brigitte Zeau,1,2,3, Christophe Bernard,4, Jean-Jacques Benoliel,1,2,3,5, and Chrystel Becker1,2,3,6.

1. Université Pierre et Marie Curie-Paris 6, UMRS 975, Pain Team, Site Pitié-Salpêtrière, 75013 Paris.
2. Inserm, U 975, 75013 Paris.
3. CNRS, UMR 7225, 75013 Paris.
4. Inserm, U 751, 13385 Marseille.
5. Endocrine and Oenological biochemistry department at the Hôpital de la Pitié- Salpêtrière, 75013 Paris.
6. Université Paris Descartes, Sorbonne Paris Cité, Faculté de Médecine, 75006 Paris.

Research contact
Jean-Jacques Benoliel
Tel.: 01 40 77 96 57

UPMC press contact
Claire de Thoisy-Méchin
Tel.: 01 44 27 23 34 - 06 74 03 40 19

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