The ERK Pathway: Molecular Mechanisms and Treatment of Depression

  • John Q. WangEmail author
  • Limin Mao


Major depressive disorder is a chronic debilitating mental illness. Its pathophysiology at cellular and molecular levels is incompletely understood. Increasing evidence supports a pivotal role of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), in particular the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) subclass of MAPKs, in the pathogenesis, symptomatology, and treatment of depression. In humans and various chronic animal models of depression, the ERK signaling was significantly downregulated in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, two core areas implicated in depression. Inhibiting the ERK pathway in these areas caused depression-like behavior. A variety of antidepressants produced their behavioral effects in part via normalizing the downregulated ERK activity. In addition to ERK, the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), an immediate upstream regulator of ERK, the cAMP response element-binding protein (CREB), a transcription factor downstream to ERK, and the MAPK phosphatase (MKP) are equally vulnerable to depression. While BDNF and CREB were reduced in their activity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus of depressed animals, MKP activity was enhanced in parallel. Chronic antidepressant treatment readily reversed these neurochemical changes. Thus, ERK signaling in the depression-implicated brain regions was disrupted during the development of depression, which contributes to the long-lasting and transcription-dependent neuroadaptations critical for enduring depression-like behavior and the therapeutic effect of antidepressants.


Depression Antidepressant ERK MAPK phosphatase BDNF CREB Frontal cortex Hippocampus 


Funding Information

This work was supported by NIH grants R01DA10355 (JQW) and R01MH61469 (JQW).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biomedical SciencesUniversity of Missouri-Kansas City, School of MedicineKansas CityUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnesthesiologyUniversity of Missouri-Kansas City, School of MedicineKansas CityUSA

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