Depression is a mental health problem that can make a person feel sad, hopeless, or lose interest in things they usually enjoy.
Sometimes, people with depression may find it hard to get out of bed or do their normal activities.
One symptom of depression is called “anhedonia”, a big word that simply means not being able to feel pleasure.
People with anhedonia don’t enjoy things they used to love, like playing soccer, eating ice cream, or hanging out with friends.
How Our Brain Works in Depression
Our brain has billions of cells called neurons that talk to each other using special chemicals. One of these chemicals is dopamine, which makes us feel happy and motivated.
When we win a video game, score a goal in soccer, or get a good grade in school, our brain releases dopamine, and we feel good.
Sometimes, though, the body can have too much of something called “inflammation”. This is usually a good thing when we get sick, as it helps fight off harmful germs.
But too much inflammation can also affect our brain, especially the parts that control our feelings and motivation.
Some researchers believe that when there’s too much inflammation, our brain doesn’t make enough dopamine.
This can make people feel less motivated and experience anhedonia, those feelings we talked about earlier when people don’t enjoy things they usually love.
What the Scientists Did
A team of scientists at Emory University School of Medicine decided to investigate how inflammation affects the brain and what can be done about it.
They published their findings in a journal called Molecular Psychiatry.
They gathered 40 people who were feeling depressed. To figure out who had high levels of inflammation, the scientists tested the patients’ blood for a marker called CRP.
CRP stands for C-reactive protein, and when there’s a lot of it in the blood, it means the body has lots of inflammation.
The Role of Levodopa
Then, the scientists decided to try a medicine called levodopa on these patients.
This drug is often given to people with a disease called Parkinson’s, which affects movement. Levodopa works by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain.
The patients visited the scientists twice. On one visit, they took a placebo, which is a pill that looks like a medicine but doesn’t do anything. On the other visit, they took levodopa.
While the patients were on these visits, the scientists scanned their brains using a special machine that allowed them to see how different parts of the brain were communicating with each other. This is called “functional connectivity.”
The researchers found out that levodopa made the patients’ brains work better, but only in those with high levels of CRP in their blood. This means only the people with lots of inflammation benefited from the drug.
The patients with high CRP levels not only had improved brain connectivity but also felt less of the anhedonia symptom after taking levodopa. This means they started enjoying things again!
The Big Picture
These findings are very important. They suggest that depression in people with high inflammation could be treated with medicines that increase dopamine, like levodopa.
The study also shows that the brain’s functional connectivity can tell us how inflammation is affecting the brain. This could help doctors figure out which patients would benefit most from certain treatments.
Jennifer C. Felger, the leader of the research team, said that their findings might guide future studies and help doctors treat this type of depression more effectively.
The journey of understanding depression and finding the best ways to help those struggling with it continues. This study, though, is one exciting step forward in this important quest.
For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about how to treat depression and dementia from eyes, and vitamin D could help lower the risk of autoimmune diseases.
The study was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
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