Depression—the most common cause of disability in the world— places serious demands on health services and is a major contributor to suicide. Yet our ability to develop new, more effective treatments continues to hit obstacles largely due to a lack of understanding of the cellular and molecular basis of the causes. One exciting opportunity arises from recently acquired knowledge about the function of astrocytes—a cell type in the brain that has been understudied. These cells comprise ~40% of the total number of brain cells. Astrocytes serve diverse and important roles to support the brain as an organ, including regulating the metabolism and functioning of brain circuits. Their role(s) as contributing to depression have only begun to be investigated
Two leading experts in astrocyte biology, Bal Khakh and Michael Sofroniew, have joined forces to ask whether alterations in astrocyte function are involved in depression. Dr. Khakh has developed unique molecular tools that allow him to see inside astrocytes and directly observe how they function. These tools enable Dr. Khakh and Dr. Sofroniew to compile a detailed picture of astrocytes in regions of the brain known to be involved in depression. The next step for the team will be to explore what happens to astrocyte molecular properties and functions in depression-like states, using mouse models to explore the cellular and molecular origins of the disease.
This update was included in the DGC Summer Newsletter, written by UCLA Student/Depression Grand Challenge Student Worker, Emilia Szmyrgala.