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Emory pediatrics researcher Shannon Gourley received a Biobehavioral Research Award for Innovative New Scientists (BRAINS) this year from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the brain mechanisms involved in adolescent depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website, the grant provides $1.6 million to early-stage investigators over the course of five years.

Gourley’s research focuses on the adolescent brain and its response to stressors, which often carry long-term consequences for people into adulthood and are a predictive factor for depression.

“If we have a better understanding at a basic biological level of what’s happening in the adolescent brain in response to stressor exposure, we can ultimately use that information to develop novel treatment strategies in the future,” Gourley said.

The NIMH website states that the BRAINS award was established to counteract the trend of researchers under 35 receiving little to no funding awards. The BRAINS award seeks to engage this new generation with “new approaches to research support.” Since 2009, NIH has awarded the grant to 38 researchers.

According to NIMH, about 11 percent of adolescents develop a depressive disorder by age 18. The NIMH website states that depression in adolescents is more prevalent in girls than boys.

Gourley said that young women who report stressor-related depression note that social factors like bullying or social exclusion significantly contribute to depressive moods.

Larry Young, William P. Timmie professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in Emory’s School of Medicine, wrote in an email to the Wheel that social interactions strongly impact the brain and the body’s overall health.

For example, he explained that a positive social interaction could stimulate the release of dopamine, which helps provide a sense of pleasure, and oxytocin, which focuses the brain’s attention to the social cues.

“Positive social relationships can then have a large number of health benefits ranging from decreased likelihood of depression and cardiovascular disease to increased immune function,” Young wrote. “If social interactions are negative in nature, they can have a very strong impact on the body’s stress response, which, if prolonged, can lead to mental health issues including depression.”

Young added that further research regarding social interactions and their relation to depression would significantly contribute to understanding depression.

“I think that the more we learn about how social interactions interact with systems involved in depression, like stress hormones and CRF, the better we’ll be at managing depression, not only through antidepressants but by managing social relationships,” Young wrote.

Gourley said that experiencing stressors derailed the processes of adolescent brain development.

“The adolescent brain is undergoing some profound structural changes so the neurons in the adolescent brain are literally remodeling and changing shape,” Gourley said. “Some synaptic connections, where the neurons talk to each other, are being formed but, [in the case of depression,] mostly these connections are being lost.”

Gourley added that adolescent depression was an important issue because of the black box warning that the FDA issued in 2008, which cautioned physicians against prescribing common antidepressants to individuals aged 24 and younger, leaving a large group of adolescents with depression untreated. To combat this problem, Gourley said she and her lab are testing two novel compounds that could have “antidepressant-like” properties.

“We know that these drugs are safe in human beings, and that can potentially be translated off label to treat depression in adolescents,” Gourley said.

Gourley explained that the neural changes, increased risk-taking and impulsive behaviors    that characterize adolescence in humans, also occurs in all other mammals.

Consequently, she said that she and her lab are using mice to study brain maturation and how stressor exposure impacts adolescent behavior.

Gourley said she and her lab have completed almost a year of research under the five-year grant. She said that her research would hopefully result in more information about the adolescent brain.

“Right now the basic biology needs to be better understood, but I do hope that in the five-year period of the grant, we’re going to come out with a lot more information about the adolescent brain,” Gourley said.

– By Harmeet Kaur