New study links protein beta-catenin to depression

A research paper published in Nature identifies one factor which may explain why some people deal with stress and avoid depression more easily than others.

The paper is entitled “β-catenin mediates stress resilience through Dicer1/microRNA regulation”. The abstract explains, “β-catenin is a multi-functional protein that has an important role in the mature central nervous system; its dysfunction has been implicated in several neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression.” The full text is available only to Nature subscribers, pricey at $199/year. And let’s face it, few of us would understand it anyway.

The research team also issued a press release entitled “Brain protein influences how the brain manages stress; suggests new model of depression”, geared toward pop science journalists and curious non-scientists. Some excerpts:

Specifically, the research team found that animals whose brains activated B-catenin were protected against stress, while those with inactive B-catenin developed signs of depression in their behavior. The study also showed suppression of this protein in brain tissue of depressed patients examined post mortem.

“Our human data are notable in that we show decreased activation of B-catenin in depressed humans, regardless of whether these individuals were on or off antidepressants at the time of death,” says the study’s co-lead investigator, Caroline Dias. “This implies that the antidepressants were not adequately targeting this brain system.”

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The findings also suggest that future therapy for depression could be aimed at bolstering resilience against stress.

“While most prior efforts in antidepressant drug discovery have focused on ways to undo the bad effects of stress, our findings provide a pathway to generate novel antidepressants that instead activate mechanisms of natural resilience,” says [lead investigator Dr. Eric] Nestler.

Any practical treatment options based on this research are a long way off. There are no beta-catenin supplements you can add to your daily pill regimen. But it’s good to know the smart folks are working on it.

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