Serotonin brain map could revolutionize antidepressants

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A map tracking the activity of serotonin in the human brain could revolutionize the targeted use of antidepressants and behavioral therapy for people suffering from mental illnesses.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and it is often regarded by scientists as the chemical responsible for maintaining mood balance. A deficit of serotonin leads to depression. However, researchers lack a deeper understanding of how it affects different mood disorders.

Dr Jeremiah Cohen, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute in Baltimore, told The Guardian about the importance of serotonin: “The ultimate aim is to understand the biology of mood and how groups of cells in the brain connect to produce our emotional behavior.

“Most antidepressants operate broadly in the entire serotonin system. What we hope to do with this map is use drugs that are available or design new drugs that will target only the components of that system relevant to a particular disorder.”

Researchers hope that by understanding the biology of serotonin, drugs can be created that only target cells relevant to a particular disorder.

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The use of antidepressants in England has increased since the late 1990s. Especially during the financial crisis and subsequent recession their usage rose, with 12.5 million more pills prescribed in 2012 than in 2007.

Researchers from the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation found that the number of antidepressants prescriptions rose from 15 million in 1998 to 40 million in 2012.

Cohen will monitor the activity of serotonin neurons in mice while the animals perform “reward and punishment” tasks.

He was selected by the charity MQ: Transforming Mental Health as one of four researchers to share a grant of £900,000 to carry out mental health research.

“Whether medication or psychological therapy, it is vital that people receive the most effective mental healthcare that works for them,” MQ chief executive Cynthia Joyce told the Guardian.

“Dr Cohen’s research addresses a longstanding gap in our understanding of mental illness. Excitingly, it has the potential to help us to achieve better, more personalized treatments for millions of people.”