The World Health Organization predicts that depressive disorders will be the greatest contributor to the global burden of disease by 2030. Major depression is thought to comprise a heterogeneous group of diseases caused by genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors. In humans, detrimental early life events, such as maternal neglect or abuse during childhood, are associated with increased risk of emotional disorders including major depression that may persist into adulthood. In fact, experimental and clinical studies have shown that the immaturity and plasticity of the central nervous system during childhood make it particular sensitive to stress at a young age, which may cause significant and permanent changes in brain structure and function.
On the other hand, recent clinical and experimental data suggest that the pathophysiology of several neuropsychiatric disorders, including depressive syndromes, involves activation of the immune system in response to inflammatory agents. In fact, pro-inflammatory cytokines alter tryptophan metabolism, affecting the activity of serotonin, a neurotransmitter with a key role in the modulation of mood. Therefore, the tryptophan metabolic route becomes imbalanced during depression, enhancing an alternative metabolic pathway, the kynurenine synthesis pathway, and decreasing the availability of tryptophan to be metabolized into serotonin. This metabolic change has been directly associated to the development of depressive symptoms in humans and in experimental animal models.
In a recent study published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, we have shown that maternal separation indeed induces both neuroinflammation and long-lasting emotional alterations in mice. The study was developed during Irene Gracia-Rubio’s PhD training at the GReNeC and done in collaboration with other research teams: the group led by Roser Nadal in UAB for maternal behaviour evaluation, and also with Oscar Pozo and Josep Marcos, researchers of the Neuroscience Program at IMIM (Hospital del Mar Research Institute) for the analysis of the kynurenine pathways. To have the opportunity to work with all these researchers in a collaborative project has been a very positive experience.
Our aim was to explore the interplay between depressive symptoms in behavioural models, neuroinflammation, and alterations in the tryptophan-kynurenine pathway since these mechanisms could lead to the discovery of new therapy approaches.
For that, we set up different behavioural models to induce conditions of early life adversity in male and female mice. Although most studies are done only in males, we decided to study female mice since the risk of suffering depression is double in women than in men.
We used two conditions: the maternal separation paradigm in mice as a model of early life neglect, and the standard rearing condition (the ‘control’), in which offspring remained with their mothers for 21 days. We then looked at the effect of both conditions on emotional behaviour during adolescence and into adulthood.
To test these effects, we performed a range of tests of anxiety, depressive symptoms and other emotional-related behaviours. To test anxiety, we used the elevated plus maze, a test that evaluates the capability of a rodent to explore new and stressful environments. Anxiety-like behaviour is reflected by an attenuated exploratory behaviour in mice. For testing depressive-like symptoms, we used the tail-suspension test, a model to evaluate despair behaviour, in this case, the time spent immobile when a mouse is confronted to an inescapable stressful situation.
At the physiological level, we looked for signs of neuroinflammation in different brain areas, and analysed metabolites of the tryptophan-kynurenine pathway to explore the link between depressive symptoms and inflammatory reactions.
Our results showed that adverse events during early life in mice increase risk of long-lasting emotional alterations during adolescence and into adulthood. These emotional disturbances were particularly severe in females. Behavioural impairments, including depressive symptoms, were associated with neuroinflammatory reactions in the two brain regions evaluated (prefrontal cortex and hippocampus).
In conclusion, these findings support the preeminent role of neuroinflammation in emotional disorders. Our results lead us to propose that detrimental early life events such as maternal neglect reproduce most of the behavioural alterations associated with depressive symptoms in mice. These alterations seem to be long lasting since adult mice also showed these emotional alterations. We also found that females were more sensitive to adverse conditions than males since the detrimental effects observed were more intense and persisted longer in time in female mice. Our study also supports the notion that the imbalance of the tryptophan-kynurenine metabolism and the association of neuroinflammatory reactions underlie these emotional impairments under our experimental conditions.
Future investigations will explore the influence of maternal separation and neuroinflammation in other psychiatric disorders, in particular psychotic and drug use disorders.
Gracia-Rubio I, Moscoso-Castro M, Pozo OJ, Marcos J, Nadal R, Valverde O. Maternal separation induces neuroinflammation and long-lasting emotional alterations in mice. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 65: 104-17, 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2015.09.003.