In a March 2019 study, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine reported that they had identified and tested a new compound for depression that may work differently from all other depression drugs on the market.
As part of the study, researchers put mice in a cage with a bigger and more aggressive mouse for 10 minutes a day. The smaller mice were bullied and started to isolate themselves by hanging out in an empty corner of their cage. These “depressed” mice were then given daily doses of a new compound called JHU-083, which succeeded in bringing back the rodents’ sociable personas.
The study, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, suggests that the drug may lower signs of depression in mice by targeting immune cells and tamping down on inflammation in the brain that may be interfering with important brain connections. The results are compelling, but very early. And as history suggests, developing a truly new drug for mental illness is no easy task, as the brain is one of the most mystery-laden areas of medicine.
While drug development is a complex and lengthy process by default, the discovery of new medications for depression is especially fraught. The brain is a highly complicated organ and scientists still don’t fully understand the various causes of depression and how to treat them.
But the stakes are high: Over 17 million Americans have diagnosed depression and about a third of people with depression do not respond well to currently available antidepressants. Until recently, there were very few alternatives. Earlier this year two new antidepressants were approved: a ketamine-based nasal spray for treatment-resistant depression, and a drug for women with postpartum depression. Before that, the last major breakthrough in depression treatment was the release of Prozac over 30 years ago.
While the small study from Johns Hopkins suggested their new compound might work for depression, the researchers are currently tasked with attempting to understand how it works. “There are aspects of it we still don’t understand,” says Atsushi Kamiya, associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and one of the authors of the study…