It's a popular theory at the moment, not least because it's the only real alternative to the older, much-maligned and certainly incomplete monoamine hypothesis of antidepressants. But the neurogenesis hypothesis has problems of its own. A new paper claims to add to what seems like a growing list of counter-examples: Ageing abolishes the effects of fluoxetine on neurogenesis.
...the proposal that antidepressants work by promoting the survival and proliferation of new neurones in certain areas of the brain - the "neurogenesis hypothesis". Neurogenesis, the birth of new cells from stem cells, occurs in a couple of very specific regions of the adult brain, including the elaborately named subgranular zone (SGZ) of the dentate gyrus (DG) of the hippocampus. Many experiments on animals have shown that chronic stress, and injections of the "stress hormone" corticosterone, can suppress neurogenesis, while a wide range of antidepressants block this effect of stress and promote neurogenesis. (Other evidence shows that antidepressants probably do this by inducing the expression of neurotrophic signalling proteins, like BDNF.)
The researchers, Couillard-Despres et. al. from the University of Regensburg in Germany, found that fluoxetine (Prozac) enhances hippocampal neurogenesis in mice - as expected - but found in addition that this only holds true in young mice. In middle-aged and older mice, there was no such effect. That's a new finding, and a very important one.
More specifically, the (male) mice were given injections of Prozac for two weeks each. Compared to mice given placebo injections, the mice on Prozac showed
For mice, 100 days old corresponds to a human age of about 20 years; 200 days is 35 and 400 days is 65 years. The graph here shows the number of BrdU-labelled cells in the dentate gyrus, a measure of neural progenitor cell survival. As you can see, although Prozac robustly increased BrdU+ cell counts in the 100 day old mice, this effect was much less prominent (although perhaps still present a bit?) in the older mice.
increased survival and the frequency of neuronal marker expression in newly generated cells of the hippocampus in the young adult group (that is 100 days of age) only. No significant effects on neurogenesis could be detected in fluoxetine-treated adult and elderly mice (200 and over 400 days of age).
It's already well known that hippocampal neurogenesis is age dependent. Young animals (and people) have lots of new neurones being generated, but the rate progressively and inevitably declines with age. This has always been a problem for the simple hypothesis that reduced neurogenesis causes depression, because if that were the case, we'd all be paralyzed by despair by the age of 50. Despite this, it remained plausible that antidepressants worked by increasing neurogenesis, but this new evidence suggests otherwise.
Or does it? What if it turns out that fluoxetine has no antidepressant-like effects in old rodents? In that case, the neurogenesis hypothesis would be supported, not weakened, by this evidence. The author's of the paper don't even consider this possibility, which is a little odd. They do note that antidepressants are effective in older people with depression, but given that this is a paper about mice that's not the same thing. Someone needs to find out whether Prozac has anti-depressant-like effects in the same kind of old mice as those used in this study. If so, the neurogenesis hypothesis will be looking pretty fragile.
This should also serve as a reminder that lab mice are animals, not research robots. They get old, like the rest of us, and research done only on young mice, or male mice, or a certain breed of mice, may not be applicable to others. I have two cats: if you stroke the grey one on the belly, she'll purr contentedly. But if you foolishly assume that the tabby one is the same, you'll get bitten pretty quickly...
S Couillard-Despres, C Wuertinger, M Kandasamy, M Caioni, K Stadler, R Aigner, U Bogdahn, L Aigner (2009). Ageing abolishes the effects of fluoxetine on neurogenesis Molecular Psychiatry DOI: 10.1038/mp.2008.147