Dr. Georgia Hodes, assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience at Virginia Tech, has been conducting research that could potentially alter how depression is discussed and treated. Her research focuses on the presence of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines which are produced by immune cells and send signals to the body and brain.
“They signal to each other and other types of cells, so they’re what make you feel bad when you’re sick.” Hodes said. “That’s why you don’t want to get out of bed, you just want to lie there, you don’t necessarily want to eat, you don’t want to see people: all of these things we associate with sickness. We also associate those symptoms with depression.”
While most treatments for depression focus on serotonin levels in the brain, Hodes hopes to develop testing and treatment based on the presence of these cytokines in people’s bodies and the specific symptoms people experience.
Hodes explained, “We think about it as this disease of the brain. That’s because the recent drugs that have been successful work in the brain and work on serotonin. I’ve been interested in the idea at least in a subset of patients; depression is an inflammatory illness.”
In other words, cytokines are the cause of the inflammation in the body, and inflammation is the cause of depressive symptoms. This is a normal function of the body that protects us against illness-causing pathogens. They invoke an immune response that attacks the pathogens. But when that same immune response is triggered in response to stress, the result is a vicious cycle.
“What I think is in some way your body thinks stress is more dangerous to your body than it really is, so it’s mounting this really strong immune response to try and get rid whatever it thinks stress is and it can’t find it, so there is nothing to shut it off. On top of that, next time you are exposed to that stress it’s going to mount an even bigger response,” Hodes said.
Metabolites that help our bodies process foods like red wine, coffee and dark chocolate were the focus of a recent study Hodes conducted and may provide a way to treat the inflammation she has observed. Testing has so far only been done in animal models.
“What we were actually looking at in that study were the metabolites that were involved in processing foods like red wine and chocolate. That was the compound we were then treating these animals with,” Hodes said. “All of the things we looked at were anti-oxidants ... that would reduce inflammation.”
It is important to note that, unfortunately, drinking red wine and eating chocolate are not effective treatments for depression. Hodes looked at compounds metabolized from these foods, not the foods themselves.
The list of symptoms associated with depression is long and varying. To Hodes, this shows a problem with how depression is currently treated. One patient could be sleeping less and eating more while the exact opposite is true for someone else, but both patients could still be diagnosed with depression. Her research has led her to believe that a symptom-based approach could produce more accurate diagnoses and treatments tailored to depressed individuals and their symptoms.
“If you had any other form of disease, you’d get a blood test and they would tell you what treatment to use based on that test,” Hodes said. “We aren’t doing that in any kind of psychiatric illness. That’s where we need to go. There needs to be awareness that this is an illness, this is not something you can just get over.”
Hodes emphasized two particularly important messages for people suffering from depression that drive her research: It gets better and you’re not alone.
“One of the things I think is insidious about the disease is that it’s isolating, and it makes you feel like you shouldn’t tell anyone. There’s something about it that makes you feel the need to hide what you’re going through from other people, that you’re experiencing it. Honestly, one of the best things you could do is tell other people you’re going through this.” Hodge said. “I think it’s really important for people to understand, particularly in college age, that it’s not a personal failing, it’s not a punishment, it’s just a disease and it can be treated. We just have to get better at finding treatments.”
Click here to read the full study on antioxidants and stress, and sign-in through Virginia Tech’s partnership portal.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
For Hokies who are suffering or know someone who is suffering, , Cook Counseling and other numerous organizations in the Blacksburg area are available to help. You can find them here.