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Chapter 9:  Some good news -- anti-shrink molecules!
(Jan 2005)

Summary:   This chapter was originally written in 2002.  At that time, this was big news.  Now, it is very well accepted science, and the "news" comes in later chapters.  This was so exciting at the time, though, you'll see my style is a little different, a bit more run-on, perhaps.  You can skim if you like because the main molecules shown here, BDNF and Bcl-2, will appear again in the next chapter.  The main point:  Prozac and other antidepressants work by stimulating cell growth factors. 

Acknowledgement:  In this chapter, all acknowledgements appear in the text.

Link to Chapter 10


You've heard the story:  Prozac increases serotonin levels.  Right -- but what difference does that make?  What happens after serotonin increases?  That's a good question.  Here's the current working answer:  it looks like antidepressants, and exercise, and ECT, all cause brain cells to start to feed themselves again.  Huh?  That's right, these effective treatments all cause the brain to make a protein that helps cells grow and make connections to neighbors.  

OK, here we go.  We'll start pretty basic.   If you already understand about synapses, and how neurotransmitters bind to the receptors, skip to the next section.  If you already understand how antidepressants increase neurotransmitters, skip further.  

For those of you who haven't heard about all that, here's a quick story.  For an extended explanation of synapses, see an essay about them, including this lovely drawing by Graham Johnson, in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute bulletin.

How Nerve Cells Communicate
Brain cells ("neurons") talk to each other over the space between them, using a chemical message.  The message chemicals are called "neurotransmitters".  Serotonin is one of those. If Cell A needs to tell Cell B about something, it releases a neurotransmitter across the gap. The gap is called a synapse. 

Cell B has special proteins on its surface that can receive a neurotransmitter, just like a keyhole can receive a key.  Of course this is all so small we can't really "see" what this looks like, except with the most powerful microscopes.  But from years of research, the basic model of a synapse is thought to look something like this:

There's Cell A on top with the green things (we'll get to those in a minute).  And Cell B is on the bottom: you can only see part of it because we're so close.  The blue things are the receivers, each like a little keyhole.  They're called receptors.  And the red crosses are the neurotransmitters.  Cell A can release these neurotransmitters into the space between the cells (the synapse), when it wants to "talk" to Cell B. 

When the neurotransmitter floats around in the gap, some of it will bind to the receptor on the other side.  The fit is very precise, very much like a key and lock.  It has to be precise, because there are a lot of other keys floating around in the brain fluids!  Each key sends one type of message.  Most cells can only "hear" a few of these chemical messages because they only have a few receptor types on their surface.  In our model above, there is only one receptor type shown -- blue.  On a real cell there would be green receptors and yellow ones too; but not purple or gray, other cells would have those. 

You may have already guessed that there must be some way to get those red guys out of the synapse quickly.  After all, Cell A is "talking" by releasing bursts of neurotransmitter.  If that transmitter didn't get cleared out quickly, Cell B could never tell when A was talking and when it wasn't.  So, you're right: there are several ways that neurotransmitter is removed.  You'll see more about that in a moment.

And what happens when the neurotransmitter fits into the receptor on Cell B?  Ah, that's the whole point, right?  Cell B is directly affected by this.  Sometimes when the neurotransmitter binds to the receptor, Cell B becomes more active, sending its own messages on to other cells.  Sometimes, binding a neurotransmitter can decrease the activity of the receiving cell.  It depends on the type of neurotransmitter.  There are nearly 100 known neurotransmitters.  I hope you're guessing that means there must be at least 100 different receptors too; each key has a matching lock. (In fact, it's far more complicated:  there are many different receptor types for most neurotransmitters.  One of the most extreme examples is serotonin, which has seven families of receptors, most of which have several subtypes, e.g. 1A, 1C; 2A, 2B, and so forth.)

Ok, so now you know about neurotransmitters, their receptors, and how they are organized in synapses.  This is where antidepressants have their effects.  We'll show you now what those effects are.  But remember, the story we're after is what happens after that, inside the cell.  We'll get to that soon. 

How Antidepressants Affect Neurotransmitters
For years we have known that most antidepressants work by increasing the amount of neurotransmitter in the synapse.  The receiving cells thus "see" more neurotransmitter out there.  How do antidepressants cause this increase?  Well, you can imagine that there are basically two ways to do this: increase the amount released, or decrease the amount disappearing!

It turns out that most antidepressants decrease the amount of neurotransmitter being cleared away.  This leaves more of it floating around in the synapse, where it can bind to the receptors of the next cell.   Some antidepressants block the enzyme that chews up neurotransmitter.  But most of the ones you've heard about, like Prozac, work a different way: they block a recycling device!

Most cells re-use a lot of their neurotransmitter.  They have a recycling device that pulls the neurotransmitter out of the synapse and prepares it to be released again.  In our synapse model, this is shown as a green molecule on the pre-synaptic cell (Cell A, in our discussion  above):

So, if we block the recycling device, you would expect to see more neurotransmitter in the synapse.  We can show that in our model like this, using Prozac (P):

This is what you hear all the time, right? -- "Prozac increases serotonin".  True.  Ok, then what happens?  How does increasing serotonin lead to a decrease in depression?  Ah, good:  that's what we're here to try to understand.

What happens after the increase in serotonin?
For many years, the answer has been known -- at least the first thing that happens.  In fact, it's been part of the puzzle.  You see, antidepressants usually take at least days and sometimes weeks to become effective, if they work.  They don't work the first day (actually, in some people they do work that fast.  Those people are either getting a great placebo response; or, they may have "bipolar disorder", which can react very quickly to an antidepressant with  "manic" symptoms.  For more about bipolar disorder, see the section on Mood Swings). 

But the increase in serotonin does happen the first day.  Thus, for years it has been known that simply increasing serotonin is not the way antidepressants have their effects on mood.  It must be something that happens later, and something that takes days to weeks to happen.

Yet many of the next changes have also been known for years.  For example, it has been known that both antidepressant medications and ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), decrease the number of receptors on the post-synaptic cell:

Notice that in our model there are now fewer blue receptors.  There's Prozac blocking the re-uptake site, and there's the increase in serotonin.  Now we're seeing what happens within 24 hours after someone takes an antidepressant. 

What happens next?  Finally we're getting to the "new news", although much of this has been worked out over the last 10 years.  We'll examine the so-called "second messenger" system inside cells.  Where the neurotransmitter was the "first messenger", there are other molecules inside the cell that carry the message further.  That makes sense, doesn't it?   Surely there must be some effect inside the post-synaptic cell (Cell B, in our original model)?   Please click here to continue (there are more pictures, and they have to load up).