Losing track of what are symptoms and what are causes with serotonin and stress

I’m starting to appreciate just how far down the rabbit hole researchers can go when they focus on symptoms and ignore causes.

This 2014 Duke study found that low-serotonin mice were more susceptible to stress than normal mice.

Okay so far, except that the study used transgenic mice that only had 20-40% of normal serotonin.

Humans most often develop low-serotonin symptoms for causes other than genetics, such as a second-order result of being subjected to childhood maltreatment and stress.

Use of the low-serotonin-due-to-genetics mice may have misdirected the researchers to lose focus that their ultimate task was to find ways that their research can help humans. If helping humans was the researchers’ focus, it may have occurred to them to show how stress caused “something” that caused low serotonin.

A second finding was that following exposure to stress, the low-serotonin mice didn’t respond to a standard antidepressant, fluoxetine. SSRI medications usually act to increase serotonin transmission, i.e. treat the symptom of low serotonin.

So, stress was again not viewed as a cause of “something” that caused low serotonin. Stress was viewed as the reason that the medication didn’t work.

If helping humans was the researchers’ focus, it may have occurred to them that humans may not need medication to treat the low-serotonin symptom if the “something” that stress caused that keeps the low-serotonin symptom in place was removed.

A third finding was that inhibiting the lateral habenula area (proximal to the thalamus part of the limbic system) with a drug relieved some depression-like behavior of the low-serotonin mice.

Okay, but one of the researchers went on to say:

“The next step is to figure out how we can turn off this brain region in a relatively non-invasive way that would have better therapeutic potential.”

So, everything would be fine if the low-serotonin mice would just stop displaying symptoms such as the depression-like behavior? No focus on causes, no forward thinking that maybe humans wouldn’t want part of their limbic system that performed many other functions to “turn off” just to suppress a symptom?

The researchers apparently didn’t realize their situation viz-à-viz the rabbit hole, as they circled back to the initial finding to develop a fourth finding – a possible reason that low-serotonin mice were more susceptible to stress was because a signaling molecule, β-catenin, wasn’t produced in a pathway that may be involved in resilience.

The news coverage added one more researcher quote:

“If we can identify what’s both upstream and downstream of β-catenin we might be able to come up with attractive drug targets to activate this pathway and promote resilience.”

So, if we treat a third-order symptom, the signaling molecule, everything will be alright?

Which leads me to ask:

  • Will the causes of human problems be found by studying second- and third-order symptoms of serotonin and β-catenin molecules?
  • Will the causes be found by using drugs that turn off or turn on parts of the brain to display fewer symptoms?
  • And as I ask in If research provides evidence for the causes of stress-related disorders, why only focus on treating the symptoms? where is the research on treating the “somethings” – the enduring physiological responses to stress – with goals for reversing them, instead of ignoring the causes and only treating the effects?

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/8/2557.full “Brain 5-HT deficiency increases stress vulnerability and impairs antidepressant responses following psychosocial stress”

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