Ground-breaking Stem Cell Trial for Depression Underway
It is estimated that around one in 10 people will suffer from depression at some time during their lives. Depression is especially prevalent in those who have other conditions such as cancer, Parkinson’s, and diabetes.
The exact causes of depression are not fully understood. It is thought that the condition arises due to a combination of stressful life events, genetic predispositions, and imbalances in the mood chemicals such as serotonin in the brain.
The most widely used treatment for depression, antidepressants, is designed to address such chemical imbalances. However, this chemical imbalance theory is unproven and antidepressants only provide a short-term intervention for depression, not a long-term cure.
To help move the field of depression research forward, researchers in a new stem cell trial for depression are testing the effectiveness of stem cells from dental pulp as a way to alter and improve mental health.
Rather than depression being a result of difficult life events and genetics, the new belief is that nerve cell growth, and the connections between nerve cells, play a vital role in managing moods and emotions.
The stem cell trial for depression follows the breakthrough findings from Johns Hopkins University that show how antidepressants trigger stem cells in the brain to make new nerve cells. The researchers believe that the more nerve cells there are, the better the communication will be in the areas of the brain responsible for managing emotions.
Growing New Nerve Cells to Rewire the Depressed Brain
In this unprecedented stem cell trial for depression, 48 people diagnosed with depression will be given stem cells taken from the pulp of other people’s extracted teeth.
The dental pulp stem cells are first processed and cleaned before being injected into patients’ arms in four sessions, each two weeks apart.
The participants receiving the stem cells will also be given the antidepressant fluoxetine. The control group for the trial will be given only fluoxetine daily, allowing researchers to measure the effects of the stem cells and also see how they interact with antidepressants.
A growing literature supports the theory that new nerve cell growth in the brain can help treat depression.
Previous sudies have found that the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory and emotion, is smaller in patients with chronic depression. This supports the theory that antidepressants work not by boosting brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, but by supporting the formation of new nerve cells and brain connections.
There is also a broad research base that links depression to inflammation in the brain. Stem cells are known to reduce inflammation in the brain and body, which, in the case of depression, may have built up from years of stress.
Commenting on this approach, professor of biological psychiatry at King’s College London Carmine Pariante says:
“In the short term, stress increases the production of chemicals in the body that are helpful in the fight-or-flight response.
“For example, stress increases inflammation, which protects us from infection.
“However, psychosocial stressors that trigger depression — such as unemployment, marital difficulties or bereavement — are typically long-lasting, and in the long term the increased inflammation reduces the birth of new brain cells and the connection between brain cells, leading to depression.”
Stem cells hold much promise in depression treatment thanks to their ability to not only create new brain cells, but to also reach affected areas and reduce the inflammatory effects of stress on the brain.
Stem cells have widely documented benefits for a range of physical conditions. This exciting stem cell trial for depression may prove that these incredible cells also play an important role in improving mental health.