Since mental health problems are estimated to affect some 10% of the world’s population, it stands to reason that if you don’t suffer from depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder yourself, you are probably close to someone who does. So you might be pleased to read about a new finding that could eventually lead to a whole new approach to treating this group of common mood disorders.
The finding is that a tiny scrap of RNA – a microRNA that works in the brain – acts as a sort of mood regulator. It works something like the needle in a steam valve. Mice that had high levels of this particular molecule in one part of their brains were able to take the heat and remain calm. And those with the lowest levels were more quickly frazzled, acting depressed and anxious when exposed to stressful conditions. That second group also had a weaker response to antidepressant drugs than the average mouse – a possible clue as to why these drugs don’t really work for up to two thirds of the people who try them.
The microRNA “steam valve” Prof. Alon Chen and his group discovered regulates levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. It turns out that people who suffer from depression have low levels of this microRNA in their blood, hinting that, at long last, we might have a standardized, quantifiable way to diagnose the disease – one that could be done in any clinic. But it also suggests we might find a way to adjust that needle up or down, to effectively treat mood disorders.
The Israeli firm miCure, which now has the license to develop a diagnostic test and drug based on these findings, was founded to develop two different microRNA applications, both stemming from Weizmann Institute research. The second is a possible ALS treatment based on the discovery of the role of certain microRNAs in the survival of motor neurons. The field of small RNA-based drugs is really in its infancy, so this development is somewhat daring. If it pays off, however, it could truly be part of a new era in treatment for any number of diseases. In other words, watch this space for future developments.