Depression affects 350 million people around the world. The disease can burden communities and increase risk of suicide. Worse, depression carries a stigma. Friends and family of the patient bemoan why their loved one cannot just think happy thoughts to lift the spirits. Yet this intuition is inaccurate. Depression has a physiological basis beyond one’s conscious control, just as other diseases like cancer or heart disease. Unfortunately, we are just far from understanding what this basis is.

So far, our best clues come from the drugs we have stumbled upon to combat depression. The most often prescribed drugs are from a class called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs for short. In just America, 254 million SSRIs were prescribed last year. In the clinic these drugs have been effective in treating severely depressed patients. Meanwhile in the lab, scientists have honed in on how SSRI’s increase levels of serotonin in the brain. This has ushered in theories of how serotonin could be a major player in regulation of mood.

Our lab at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown studies serotonin to better understand it’s function in the brain. We want to know what function this neuromodulator carries out in normal brain functions. To do this, I use advanced optical and genetic techniques to change levels of serotonin and detect resulting changes in behavior. I am currently testing theories that serotonin may be involved with regulating impulsive actions. Our efforts come at time when many in the scientific community have become interested in this enigmatic neuromodulator. #GlobalHealth #Fulbright.

We hope that the basic principles we gather from this research will lead us to better theories of why serotonin may be involved with depression. A better understanding, built on first principles, will help us create better targeted treatments with fewer side effects. Moreover, simply understanding the underlying neurobiological systems will ease the stigma of depression as being “only in the mind”. As an aspiring physician, I look forward to a time when psychiatric illnesses are respected worldwide as physiological conditions, and those patients are treated with respect and empathy. My Fulbright experience is all the more fulfilling because I can work towards this cause.

Fulbright/FLAD Student Research Program, AY2014/2015
Host institution: Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, Neuroscience Program