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Brain Pathway for Depression Revealed

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have identified one unifying principle that could explain how a range of causes and treatments for depression converge. Scientists hunt for the cause of depression has implicated so many suspects and found so many treatments with different mechanisms that the condition remains an enigma.

They found that in rats the differing mechanisms of depression and its treatment in the end appear to funnel through a single brain circuit. Changes in how the electrical signals spread through the circuit appear to be the cause of depression-related behavior, according to their study.

"I think this will help us make sense of how there can be so many different causes and treatments of depression," said senior author Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, assistant professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

"It also helps us understand conceptually how something that seems as hard to get traction on as depression can have a really quantitative, concrete basis."

The work also may have implications for the search for new treatments for depression. "You can use that common pathway as the most efficient, most direct targeted way to find truly specific treatments," he said.

Deisseroth, who sees many depressed patients in clinic, said he has come to appreciate how the bumps in the road that most people see as normal obstacles in life become insurmountable hurdles to depressed people, causing them to lapse into helplessness.

Reasoning that the brain is essentially a complex electrical circuit, Deisseroth's team set out to test the theory of whether brain circuitry malfunction could be at the root of depression. To explore the idea in a precise, quantitative way, they needed to develop a visualization tool that was faster and sharper than brain imaging systems currently available, such as MRI or CT scans.

Raag Airan, an MD
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