Researcher Uses NARSAD Grant to Discover Link between Depression and Pre-Menopause

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Vivien Rekkas, Ph.D. - Brain & behavior research expert on depression
Vivien Rekkas, Ph.D.

For the first time, scientists have identified a biological change in the brains of females during perimenopause that is also associated with clinical depression. The results of this research were published June 4th in JAMA Psychiatry and may help explain the high rates of first-time depression that many women experience during this transitional life stage.

2013 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee Vivien Rekkas, Ph.D., of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, is first author on a new paper that demonstrates that the chemical monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) is elevated in women aged 41-51. MAO-A is an enzyme that breaks down chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which help to maintain a normal mood.

The research team at CAMH, led in part by two-time NARSAD Grantee Jeffrey Meyer, M.D., Ph.D., FRCP(C), took PET (positron emission tomography) scans of the brain of women divided into three age groups: reproductive age, perimenopausal age and menopausal age. The results showed that on average, levels of MAO-A were 34 percent higher in women with perimenopause than in the younger women and 16 percent higher than the women of menopausal age. Additionally, the women in perimenopause reported a higher tendency to cry, according to answers from a questionnaire called the Adult Crying Inventory.

In earlier research, Dr. Meyer found that high levels of MAO-A were linked to major depressive disorder, depressed mood related to alcohol dependence and smoking cessation, and the period immediately after childbirth.

The results of this research offer new opportunities for prevention, says Dr. Meyer. “Using PET imaging, we can test treatments to see if they can prevent this elevation of MAO-A, and potentially prevent clinical depression,” he says. “MAO-A also has important roles in creating oxidative stress and influencing cellular survival,” he continued, explaining that MAO-A activity has been linked to the natural biological process of cell death (“programmed cell death” or PCD), with elevated activity of MAO-A linked to increased PCD and MAO-A inhibitors preventing it. While cell death is a natural and healthy process that occurs throughout life to eliminate damaged, superfluous, or unwanted cells, when the process goes awry it has been linked to many diseases, including cancer.

Watch Dr. Meyer on the Canada AM morning show discussing this research.

Read an abstract of this research.

Read the press release from CAMH.

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Please note that researchers cannot give specific recommendations or advice about treatment; diagnosis and treatment are complex and highly individualized processes that require comprehensive face-to- face assessment. Please visit our "Ask an Expert" section to see a list of Q & A with NARSAD Grantees.
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