Depression is one of the most commonly diagnosed psychological disorders. If you’re reading this, the chances are that either you or somebody close to you has suffered from a depressive disorder. Globally, millions and perhaps billions of dollars have been funnelled into the study and treatment of depression. Although we can all be at risk of suffering from depression, do we all experience the condition in a different way, and is it possible that these differences aren’t just psychological, but even go as deep as our molecular make-up?
The answer to these questions seems to point at ‘Yes’; a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Psychiatry has shown vast neurological differences in men and women exist at the molecular level, implying that they require differential treatments when suffering from depression.
There are already well-established sex differences in depression. For example, women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression, while conversely, the most severe outcome of depression (suicide) is around twice as common in men, however; the focus of this experiment was in a dimension much harder to understand. Recent breakthroughs in medical imaging have increased the manner in which researchers can identify gene expression, adding an entirely new dimension to how mental illness can be studied and treated. Namely, the researchers led by Dr. Marianne Seney intended to determine if depression-related molecular mechanisms affect each sex differently.
For the experiment, the researchers examined the brains of 50 deceased adults who had been previously diagnosed with major depression. They specifically focused on three brain areas, all of which are frequent offenders for depression – the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
An impressive number of divergent genes were identified; namely, 706 in men and 882 in women. Only 52 genes were affected in both groups, however; of the genes that were implicated in both genders, only 21 were expressed in the same direction. Most were in totally opposite directions. In other words, if a woman had a reduced gene expression, a man typically had an enhanced gene expression and vice versa. This means that depression affects the male and female brain very differently, in a way that is still not yet fully comprehended.
Such data strongly indicates different treatments should be considered with respect to the sex of the patient. It may be the case that no single treatment is useful for every patient. “It challenges the assumption that a similar diagnosis across people has the same biology,” said John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. Lead researcher Dr. Seney added similar sentiments: “These results have significant implications for the development of potentially novel treatments and suggest that these treatments should be developed separately for men and women,“.
As with any new discovery, the results will be further validated when they are replicated in other studies. In light of discoveries such as these, gene-specific biological treatments for depression and other ailments are increasingly a possibility and should be closely monitored.
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