Out of sync with the world: Brain study shows body clocks of depressed people are altered at cell level

Finding of disrupted brain gene orchestration gives first direct evidence of circadian rhythm changes in depressed brains, opens door to better treatment

Finding of disrupted brain gene orchestration gives first direct evidence of circadian rhythm changes in depressed brains, opens door to better treatment

ANN ARBOR - Every cell in our bodies runs on a 24-hour clock, tuned to the night-day, light-dark cycles that have ruled us since the dawn of humanity. The brain acts as timekeeper, keeping the cellular clock in sync with the outside world so that it can govern our appetites, sleep, moods and much more.

But new research shows that the clock may be broken in the brains of people with depression -- even at the level of the gene activity inside their brain cells.

It’s the first direct evidence of altered circadian rhythms in the brain of people with depression, and shows that they operate out of sync with the usual ingrained daily cycle.

The discovery was made by sifting through massive amounts of data gleaned from donated brains of depressed and non-depressed people. With further research, the findings could lead to more precise diagnosis and treatment for a condition that affects more than 350 million people worldwide.

What’s more, the research also reveals a previously unknown daily rhythm to the activity of many genes across many areas of the brain – expanding the sense of how crucial our master clock is.

In a normal brain, the pattern of gene activity at a given time of the day is so distinctive that the authors could use it to accurately estimate the hour of death of the brain donor, suggesting that studying this “stopped clock” could conceivably be useful in forensics. By contrast, in severely depressed patients, the circadian clock was so disrupted that a patient’s “day” pattern of gene activity could look like a “night” pattern -- and vice versa.

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