Neuroscience researchers from Tufts University have found that our star-shaped brain cells, called astrocytes, may be responsible for the rapid improvement in mood in depressed patients after acute sleep deprivation. This in vivo study, published in the current issue of Translational Psychiatry, identified how astrocytes regulate a neurotransmitter involved in sleep. The researchers report that the findings may help lead to the development of effective and fast-acting drugs to treat depression, particularly in psychiatric emergencies.
Drugs are widely used to treat depression, but often take weeks to work effectively. Sleep deprivation, however, has been shown to be effective immediately in approximately 60% of patients with major depressive disorders. Although widely-recognized as helpful, it is not always ideal because it can be uncomfortable for patients, and the effects are not long-lasting.
During the 1970s, research verified the effectiveness of acute sleep deprivation for treating depression, particularly deprivation of rapid eye movement sleep, but the underlying brain mechanisms were not known.
Most of what we understand of the brain has come from research on neurons, but another type of largely-ignored cell, called glia, are their partners. Although historically thought of as a support cell for neurons, the Phil Haydon group at Tufts University School of Medicine has shown in animal models that a type of glia, called astrocytes, affect behavior.
Haydon's team had established previously that astrocytes regulate responses to sleep deprivation by releasing neurotransmitters that regulate neurons. This regulation of neuronal activity affects the sleep-wake cycle. Specifically, astrocytes act on adenosine receptors on neurons. Adenosine is a chemical known to have sleep-inducing effects.
During our waking hours, adenosine accumulates and increases the urge to sleep, known as sleep pressure. Chemicals, such as caffeine, are adenosine receptor antagonists and promote wakefulness. In contrast, an adenosine receptor agonist creates sleepiness.