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Interviewee: Eric Kandel, Columbia University
Slow progress for Mental Illness Treatment
In 2000, Columbia University psychiatrist Eric Kandel won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contributions to the understanding of the neurobiology of memory. But he feels that not enough progress has been made to help those with mental illness.
“We’re desperately in need of drugs for the mentally ill,” Kandel says. “One way to do this is to find new drug targets.”
Kandel and his colleague Daniela Pollak’s recent findings may have opened the door for such targets. They used mice as models to study depression and ways to treat it. Mice are reluctant but good swimmers. When they are placed in a pool of water they immediately paddle about.
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“So it swims and it swims and it swims and after a while it sees this is hopeless,” Kandel explains. “I’m not getting anywhere. I can’t get out of this thing, and it gives up and just floats.”
This despondent behavior is a mouse model of depression. Then Pollak gave one group of mice the drug fluoxetine, the generic version of the commonly used antidepressant Prozac, and tested their behavior compared to the mice that did not get the drug. She found that the medicated mice continued to swim and showed reduced signs of depression. Previous studies had found that the same antidepressant also causes newborn cells to grow in certain areas of the brain.
Next the scientists wanted to test whether behavioral therapy could achieve the same results as the drug. So Pollak trained one group of mice in a conditioning box. She gave the mice intermittent mild shocks but played a ticking sound only when the shock was not present. This trained the mice to feel safe whenever they heard the tone. Next they put the mice in the pool, which at first led to the expected depression.
“If you now sound this tone, which has previously been associated with learned safety, the animal starts swimming again just like it would if you gave it an antidepressant,” says Kandel.
As the researchers wrote in the journal, “Neuron,” the behavioral training was also similar to drug therapy in that it caused new cells to grow in the brain. They’re now conducting preliminary studies of similar training in people.
“It is possible that people learn to respond… to a tone presented in this way to put them into a mood that helps them to combat the depressive state,” says Kandel.
The researchers are also excited about another finding in the study. The behavioral therapy works on completely different brain chemicals than the drug therapy. They say that discovery could lead to new drugs to treat mental illnesses.
Pollak explains, “What is really important is that we can reproduce a phenomenon that has always been like black magic–who knows what is happening in psychotherapy? Is this really working? We can show it actually does work and we can use the mouse to understand what is working and to come along with potential pharmacological applications.”
This research was published in Neuron, October 9, 2008 and funded by the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, the Austrian Academy of Science and the Austrian Science Fund and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Elsewhere on the Web:
Information on depression from the National Institute of Mental Health
National Alliance for Research On Schizophrenia and Depression
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