CHICAGO — Stem cell technology provides scientists with a research tool of seemingly limitless capacity. A new study by scientists from the University of Illinois at Chicago shows just that. Using “depressed” human stem cells, researchers find that fish oil can add “antidepressant” to its list of potential health benefits.
The study shows that fish oil produces an antidepressant effect in stem cells taken from adults who have been clinically diagnosed as depressed. Depression is the most common psychiatric disorder, but currently available treatments are ineffective in about one third of patients. Researchers hope their stem cell model will give researchers a new avenue to study how depression affects the brain and possibly discover more effective ways to treat depression.
The research team took skin cells from two types of depressed patients: those who previously responded to antidepressants, and those who didn’t. These cells were sent to Massachusetts General Hospital where they were converted to stem cells. The research team engineered those cells to behave like cells of the nervous system.
Once the models were created, the team decided to test them on a simple treatment. They infused all the stem cells with fish oil to see how they would respond. The stem cells taken from both groups of patients responded positively to the fish oil treatment.
The mechanism fish oil uses to fight depression
“We saw that fish oil was acting, in part, on glial cells, not neurons,” says senior author Mark Rasenick, a research career scientist at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, in a university release. Rasenick is also president and chief scientific officer at Pax Neuroscience, a University of Illinois – Chicago startup company. “For many years, scientists have paid scant attention to glia — a type of brain cell that surrounds neurons — but there is increasing evidence that glia may play a role in depression. Our study suggests that glia may also be important for antidepressant action.”
Even though the fish oil uses a different mechanism than prescription antidepressants, they still produce a prescription-like effect.
“Our study also showed that a stem cell model can be used to study response to treatment and that fish oil as a treatment, or companion to treatment, for depression warrants further investigation,” Rasenick concludes.
The study is published in Molecular Psychiatry.
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