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Researchers to Use PET Scans to Understand Depression

Ramin Parsey

A Stony Brook University research team will conduct an imaging study of people with depression to better understand how inflammation in the brain is related to the disease, and how pharmacologic intervention can reduce inflammation and therefore the depressive symptoms it causes. Co-led by Ramin Parsey, MD, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Renaissance School of Medicine, the study is supported by a five-year $3.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a division of the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers will use Positon Emission Tomography (PET) to look inside the brains of those suffering from depression. By using a specific PET probe, they will be able to quantify the degree of inflammation in the brain.

Ramin Parsey

“We believe that depression isn’t a unitary disorder but rather a series of different brain abnormalities that lead to what looks like depression,” said Dr. Parsey, Della Pietra Family Chair in Biomedical Imaging, Director of PET Research, Co-Director of the Neuroscience Institute and Co-Principal Investigator of the study. “Further, we believe one of these brain abnormalities is tied to inflammation. We further hypothesize that those patients with the highest amounts of neuro-inflammation will be more likely to respond to an anti-inflammatory medication,” said Dr. Parsey.

For individuals with high levels of neuro-inflammation, the researchers will test the efficacy of celecoxib, a common drug used to treat inflammation.

Based on current findings and previous work, Dr. Parsey points out that the translocator protein (TSPO) is a marker of neuro-inflammation. TSPO is found to be elevated by 30 percent on average in the prefrontal cortex in those with depression relative to healthy individuals.

PET can effectively measure TSPO. The researchers hypothesize that patients with higher TSPO on the prefrontal cortex will be correlated to a better response to celecoxib.

Dr. Parsey said that when the study is complete they hope to better understand and help to define the brain abnormalities underlying depression, with data from PET imaging that will enable the team to suggest novel treatments for depression.

He added that given the current COVID-19 crisis and initial information that some COVID-19 patients may have brain inflammation caused by the infection, the possibility of enrolling individuals with depression who also had COVID-19 – with NIMH approval – could enhance the value of the study at some point during the grant period.

Dr. Parsey’s collaborators for the study include Co-Principal Investigator Christine DeLorenzo, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Biomedical Engineering; and Stella Tsirka, PhD, Professor of Pharmacological Sciences, who will conduct laboratory work as part of the study.


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