By Mark M Green (sciencefromaway.com)
Simon N. Young began teaching at McGill University in Montreal, Canada in the early 1970s and went on to become Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. He also sat on committees, which decided who gets money to do what research—a professor of considerable influence. Just about when Dr. Young began his career, there were developed drugs to treat depression, a malady of great importance to his profession. Professor Young as President of the Canadian College of Neuropsychopharmacology played a key role during his distinguished career in the increasing focus on therapeutic drugs.
The most famous of these drugs, fluoxetine, was publicly named in 1974 by scientists at Eli Lilly, one of the giants of the pharmaceutical industry. We know this drug now as Prozac, and do we know it. According to a reliable Wikipedia site, within a short time of Eli Lilly introducing this anti-depressant, with Food and Drug Administration approval in 1987, sales reached $350 million and by 2010 prescriptions reached approximately thirty million in the United States and Great Britain. This comes as no surprise considering the widely read and reviewed 1996 memoir, Prozac Nation, and a film made from it several years later. Though not a book well thought of, the thesis certainly demonstrated the wide use of this drug and the occurrence of depression.
Prozac and other drugs of that class inhibit very large proteins in the brain responsible for the reuptake of a small molecule called a neurotransmitter, serotonin. After the serotonin plays its role in allowing signals to be transferred from one neuron to another, it is up taken by this protein and removed. If Prozac inhibits this process, then the serotonin can continue to cause signals to be transferred, events that reduce depression by means that are not understood in full detail although the serotonin is very widespread and thought to connect parts of the brain associated with variable functions including mood.
Serotonin is quite an important biological molecule. Huge amounts of it are produced in our gut and it is critically important for the functioning of our digestive system, although that gut-produced serotonin is not allowed to pass into our brains. Scientists have recently shown that we can’t produce this gut-important molecule without the intervention of certain kinds of bacteria. The bacteria are one of a very large number of kinds that constitute our microbiome. What’s that: “the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space.” Those are the words of Joshua Lederberg who won the Nobel Prize in 1958 for understanding much about the genetic makeup of bacteria. Now we know that the microbiome can contribute as much as one to three percent of our body weight! That deserves an exclamation mark, you must agree. There is a great deal going on now in the medical world about the microbiome leading to a procedure called fecal transplant, in which the fecal matter of a healthy person is transferred rectally or orally to someone suffering from gut related problems to reinstitute a healthy bacterial population.
Perhaps Professor Young, who played a role as a young professor in the acceptance of the importance of drugs for treatment of psychiatric problems, in his later years as emeritus professor at McGill, has seen a different light. As he was heading toward retirement as emeritus professor at McGill (in 2013) he published a paper in the November 2007 issue of the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience entitled: “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs” It is worth reading. Here we learn that finding a happy way of life is correlated with higher levels of serotonin and longevity and physical health including less cardiovascular disease. There is evidence, that while serotonin enhances good mood, good mood enhances the amount of serotonin available to the brain—a kind of yoga related idea. Bright light is also associated with higher levels of brain serotonin. Spending time outdoors is apparently healthy and the numbers of people seeking relief from depression may be connected with our increasingly indoor life style away from the farm. Light cafes have been introduced in Scandinavia. And evidence suggests that exercise, especially to exhauston, leads to increased brain serotonin. And finally there is diet—foods that contribute high levels of the accessible amino acid, which is the precursor of serotonin, increase the chemical in the brain.
To return to Eli Lilly: The company is about to test another blockbuster drug, based on monoclonal antibodies, which is intended to remove the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Their stock has already shot up as I write this piece, and speculation is rife.
Mark M. Green is professor of organic chemistry at the Polytechnic Engineering School of New York University and an investigator of natural insect controls on his farm in upstate New York.