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Inflammation, Depression and Dementia: Are they Connected?


Chronic inflammation is now considered to be central to the pathogenesis not only of such medical disorders as cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and cancer but also of major depression. If chronic inflammatory changes are a common feature of depression, this could predispose depressed patients to neurodegenerative changes in later life. Indeed there is now clinical evidence that depression is a common antecedent of Alzheimer’s disease and may be an early manifestation of dementia before the cognitive declines becomes apparent. This review summarises the evidence that links chronic low grade inflammation with changes in brain structure that could precipitate neurodegenerative changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. For example, neuronal loss is a common feature of major depression and dementia. It is hypothesised that the progress from depression to dementia could result from the activation of macrophages in the blood, and microglia in the brain, that release pro-inflammatory cytokines. Such cytokines stimulate a cascade of inflammatory changes (such as an increase in prostaglandin E2, nitric oxide in addition to more pro-inflammatory cytokines) and a hypersecretion of cortisol. The latter steroid inhibits protein synthesis thereby reducing the synthesis of neurotrophic factors and preventing reairto damages neuronal networks. In addition, neurotoxic end products of the tryptophan-kynurenine pathway, such as quinolinic acid, accumulate in astrocytes and neurons in both depression and dementia. Thus increased neurodegeneration, reduced neuroprotection and neuronal repair are common pathological features of major depression and dementia. Such changes may help to explain why major depression is a frequent prelude to dementia in later life.

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Correspondence to Brian E. Leonard.

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Special issue dedicated to Dr. Moussa Youdim.

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Leonard, B.E. Inflammation, Depression and Dementia: Are they Connected?. Neurochem Res 32, 1749–1756 (2007).

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  • Pro-inflammatory cytokines
  • Cortisol
  • Tryptophan-kynurenine pathway
  • Macrophages
  • Microglia
  • Neurotoxicity