At Renaissance School, a closer look at depression

Different approach: Inflammation in the brain could be a primary cause of what medical science calls "depression." A Stony Brook University research team aims to find out.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A hefty federal grant will support a multi-disciplined team of Stony Brook University researchers with a unique take on the enigma that is depression.

Combining experts in psychological health, pharmacological sciences and next-generation scanning technologies, the team hopes to better understand how inflammation in the brain is related to the leading worldwide disorder and its myriad forms – and it now has a $3.5 million National Institutes of Health grant to help gather clues.

The big-picture idea is to quantify inflammation in the brains of depression patients using detailed Positron Emission Tomography scans, and determine how pharmacological interventions specifically targeting inflammation might help.

Whether reducing brain inflammation can actually reduce depressive symptoms remains to be seen, but the SBU team – co-led by Professor Ramin Parsey, chairman of the Renaissance School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health – is confident that at least one “brain abnormality” associated with depression is also linked to inflammation.

Ramin Parsey: All in on inflammation.

Parsey, the Renaissance School’s director of PET research and co-director if its Neurosciences Institute, is leading the study alongside co-principal investigator Christine DeLorenzo, an associate professor of psychiatry and biomedical engineering.

The crux of the research is that depression isn’t one thing, according to Parsey, but several aberrations that may individually cause inflammation, which is actually part of the human body’s defense mechanism and plays a part in virtually all chronic diseases and faulty internal conditions.

“We believe that depression isn’t a unitary disorder but rather a series of different brain abnormalities that lead to what looks like depression,” Parsey noted “Further, we believe one of these brain abnormalities is tied to inflammation.”

Exhibit A: Parsey’s previous research suggests the translocator protein, a common marker of neuro-inflammation, is elevated in the prefrontal cortex of depression patients.

Hence, the new imaging study, which – riding that five-year grant from the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health – will focus first on the common anti-inflammatory drug celecoxib’s potential as a depression treatment.

The Stony Brook team, including Professor of Pharmacological Sciences Stella Tsirka, hopes the PET imaging effort will lead to a better understanding of the inflammation-related abnormalities underlying depression – while Parsey believes the effective application of celecoxib will ultimately lead to novel pharmaceutical treatments for the many forms of depression.

“We further hypothesize that those patients with the highest amounts of neuro-inflammation will be more likely to respond to an anti-inflammatory medication,” the professor said.