“Genes are not destiny. Such discoveries and studies offer hope that depression is not just a fate into which you’re born.”
Mood is an ephemeral experience that is difficult to define and capture, yet it is a phenomenon we all experience. Through the perspective of a scientist, mood may be defined as an adaptive tool and biological mechanism we use to tell us how we are doing in the world. However, some individuals are predisposed due to an intricate relationship between genes, neuronal wiring, and environment to suffer from a painful and hard to define mood disorder called depression.
Depression is a disease that plagues more individuals in our community than many of us are aware of. According to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 350 million individuals of all ages who suffer from depression. Those with depression suffer from various degrees of psychological and physical pain that has resounding and variable influence on cognition, behavior, and movement. It is an illness that can happen early in life and be long lasting if not treated early or if it is underdiagnosed. Currently, treatment for depression commonly involves talk therapy or prescription antidepressants. However, these two treatment options together may not be enough, take too long to have a significant effect, or simply not work depending on the individual. To this day it is not clear to what extent depression is due to genes, the ways in which neurons wire, or environment and how each contribute to depression. There are many dimensions to approach and unravel depression, and Dr. Akil offers a perspective to help.
This week’s Wonder Woman is Dr. Huda Akil, a neuroscientist whose research has contributed to understanding the neurobiology of emotions. As a young girl, Dr. Akil was inspired by the work of Marie Curie—a famous Nobel Laureate who moved from Poland to Paris to pursue her dream of becoming a scientist. Following Marie Curie’s lead in relocating to pursue her dreams, Akil moved from Damascus to America in order to pursue her dream of becoming a scientist. Dr. Akil received her BA and MA at the American University of Beirut and then went on to earn her PhD at UCLA and to become a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University. She is currently a faculty member of The Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute at the University of Michigan. Dr. Akil is former president of the Society for Neuroscience—the “world’s largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system” and is an elected member of the National Academy of Science. Additionally, she is 1 of the 7 scientists who are members of the Hope for Depression Research Foundation Task Force.
Dr. Akil’s research is focused on understanding the neurobiology of emotions, including pain, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Her major contribution to the field of neuroscience is the first functional evidence that our body activates endorphins (a type of “pain relieving” chemical our body makes naturally) when we are faced with stressful situations in order to block pain. Furthermore, she investigated the molecular and neural mechanisms underlying stress and how this relates to anxiety and depression. She used hamster models to discover new molecules and genes that are related to mood and addiction. Additionally, she is the author of over 500 original scientific papers, and has been recognized as one of the most highly cited neuroscientists for her work.
Dr. Akil’s research sheds some light through the dark clouds that depression casts over millions of people. Ultimately, studying depression through the lens of neuroscience can further our understanding of the causes and perpetuation of depression that has evaded us for decades.
Below you can find a video of Dr. Akil’s lecture at the NIH titled “The depressed brain: sobering and hopeful lessons.” If you have the time, you should definitely check it out!
Article written by: Alexandra McHale