Pronounced and sustained central hypernoradrenergic function in major depression with melancholic features: Relation to hypercortisolism and corticotropin-releasing hormone

Ma Li Wong, Mitchel A. Kling, Peter J. Munson, Samuel Listwak, Julio Licinio, Paolo Prolo, Brian Karp, Ian E. McCutcheon, Thomas D. Geracioti, Michael D. DeBellis, Kenner C. Rice, David S. Goldstein, Johannes D. Veldhuis, George P. Chrousos, Edward H. Oldfield, Samuel M. McCann, Philip W. Gold

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Both stress-system activation and melancholic depression are characterized by fear, constricted affect, stereotyped thinking, and similar changes in autonomic and neuroendocrine function. Because norepinephrine (NE) and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) can produce these physiological and behavioral changes, we measured the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) levels each hour for 30 consecutive hours in controls and in patients with melancholic depression. Plasma adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol levels were obtained every 30 min. Depressed patients had significantly higher CSF NE and plasma cortisol levels that were increased around the clock. Diurnal variations in CSF NE and plasma cortisol levels were virtually superimposable and positively correlated with each other in both patients and controls. Despite their hypercortisolism, depressed patients had normal levels of plasma ACTH and CSF CRH. However, plasma ACTH and CSF CRH levels in depressed patients were inappropriately high, considering the degree of their hypercortisolism. In contrast to the significant negative correlation between plasma cortisol and CSF CRH levels seen in controls, patients with depression showed no statistical relationship between these parameters. These data indicate that persistent stress-system dysfunction in melancholic depression is independent of the conscious stress of the disorder. These data also suggest mutually reinforcing bidirectional links between a central hypernoradrenergic state and the hyperfunctioning of specific central CRH pathways that each are driven and sustained by hypercorticolism. We postulate that α-noradrenergic blockade, CRH antagonists, and treatment with antiglucocorticoids may act at different loci, alone or in combination, in the treatment of major depression with melancholic features.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)325-330
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished or Issued - 4 Jan 2000

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