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Brain serotonin enzyme finding might explain psychiatric disorders

DURHAM, N.C. -- Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have provided the first direct evidence in mice for the role of an enzyme that specifically controls the production of serotonin in the brain. Different versions of that serotonin enzyme have a major effect on brain levels of the chemical messenger, which has been linked to many basic behavioral and physiological functions including mood, emotion, sleep and appetite, the researchers reported in the July 9, 2004, issue of Science. The finding has major implications for understanding psychiatric disorders and their treatment, the researchers said.

Serotonin is a "neurotransmitter," a chemical that one neuron uses to trigger a nerve impulse in its neighbors. Thus, serotonin levels can profoundly affect brain function, and therefore behavior.

"For the first time, we've identified a naturally occurring genetic difference that controls the production of serotonin in the brain," said Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Marc Caron, Ph.D., James B. Duke professor of cell biology at Duke and senior author of the study.

The finding in mice sets the stage for new insights into the role the serotonin enzyme and the gene that encodes it might play in animal behavior and human psychiatric disorders, said the researchers. Low levels of serotonin have been implicated in many disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The enzyme might also influence patients' responses to the class of drugs known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors or SSRIs, they added. SSRIs include paroxetine (trade name Paxil), sertraline (trade name Zoloft) and fluoxetine (trade name Prozac). The influence of the serotonin enzyme raises the possibility that a genetic test to distinguish which version of the gene a patient has could predict the patient's response to the drugs, Caron said.

The brain is a network of billions of
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Contact: Kendall Morgan
kendall.morgan@duke.edu
919-660-1306
Duke University Medical Center
8-Jul-2004


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