Tracing the path of depression

A grant of £364,000 to develop radioactive 'tracers' that will help in understanding the cause of depression, has been awarded to the University of Bristol and its partners.

Depression is an extremely debilitating disease that has a major impact on health. It is estimated to cost the UK around £12 billion a year, yet little is still understood about the changes in the brain that underlie this disorder.

Powerful techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) scanning have recently provided significant advances in understanding how the brain works. These techniques allow the study of brain function and chemistry in living human brains. They rely on the availability of specially designed radioactive ‘tracers' to monitor brain function.

Noradrenaline, a chemical found throughout the brain, has been implicated in depression and many other debilitating brain diseases, but it cannot be studied in living human brains at present, since no tracer is available to monitor it. The funding awarded to the University will allow them to develop tracers to track noradrenaline's activity in the brain.

David Nutt, Professor of Psychopharmacology, said: "The development of one of these radioactive tracers to enable the study of noradrenaline and its related processes in those suffering depression is critical to our proper understanding of this disease.

"This in turn will allow us to better diagnose depression and lead to a much better prognosis for the sufferer. It would also permit us to refine the treatments that we already have and to develop new and better ones."

The grant is one of 18 such projects being spear-headed by the Medical Research Council, with further funding from the biotech industry. The British Heart Foundation is also contributing funding to some of the projects. The total value of the grants is £17 million for projects that will develop new ways to assess health, monitor disease or determine responsiveness to treatment.

Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council said: "The combination of public funding from the Medical Research Council and British Heart Foundation, and support from the pharmaceutical industry for these research projects shows how public and private sectors can work together to develop better diagnostic tools, as well as to facilitate development of new treatments. These types of collaborations ultimately benefit patients, who will see quicker applications of scientific discoveries. This collaboration is another step toward realising the MRC's vision for better translation of the UK's world-leading basic research."

It is anticipated that it will take up to three years to develop the noradrenaline tracer. It will be tested at GlaxoSmithKline's new £46m Clinical Imaging Centre, which is equipped with the latest imaging technologies such as PET scanners.

The project will be a collaboration between Bristol University's Psychopharmacology Unit and Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, the University of Bath and the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, who will also contribute £667,000 to the project.

The development of one of these radioactive tracers is critical to our proper understanding of depression.

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