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 Mental Health Center Feature Story

Eating Fish May Help Stave Off Depression
Animal experiments show certain types benefit the brain

Eating Fish May Help Stave Off Depression (HealthDay News) -- Oily species of fish, including salmon and tuna, are considered good for the circulatory system, thanks to the omega-3 fatty acids they contain.

But what's good for the heart also appears to be good for the brain, researchers say.

Scientists have found that omega-3 fatty acids and the natural substance uridine work as well as drugs in preventing the signs of depression.

That may be good news for the millions of Americans who suffer from the illness. A depressive disorder involves the body and the mind and affects the way people eat and sleep, how they feel about themselves and the way they think about things.

It's not just "having a blue day," and it doesn't mean that people just can't "pull themselves together" and get over it. Without treatment, symptoms can last for years.

For the study involving fish, researchers from Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., used rat experiments that followed an established animal model of depression. Rats are placed in a tank of water and have to swim. After a while, the rats realize that swimming is futile, so they simply begin to float, a sign of surrender to depression. Research has shown, however, that when the rats are given an antidepressant drug, they begin to swim again.

But instead of a drug, this study involved giving the rats combined doses of omega-3 fatty acids and uridine. The combination proved as effective as three antidepressants in spurring the rats to begin swimming again, said study author William Carlezon, director of McLean's Behavioral Genetics Laboratory.

"We had given these two components (omega-3 fatty acids and uridine) separately," Carlezon told HealthDay. "As it became clear that each treatment in its own way was having an effect, we came up with the idea of giving them together to see if there would be a synergistic effect, because they act on the same system."

The drugs and the dietary components used in the study probably act on mitochondria in brain cells, Carlezon said.

"Mitochondria produce energy for brain cells," he said. "Imagine what happens if your brain does not have enough energy. Basically, we were giving the brain more fuel on which to run."

Dr. Bruce Cohen, president and psychiatrist-in-chief at McLean Hospital, told HealthDay that "if you study people around the world and take people of similar backgrounds, the group eating more fish has a lower rate of heart disease and depressive illnesses."

Cohen said the best way to get omega-3 fatty acids is to eat fish, rather than taking dietary supplements.

"In fish, they are fresh and in the form you need," Cohen said.

Uridine is different, as it's not found in high levels in any food, Carlezon said. It is an important element in mother's milk because it is essential for early nerve growth, he said.

Uridine supplements are not available, Carlezon said, adding that more studies are needed to see whether uridine in the diet truly affects mental capacity and learning.

On the Web

To learn more about depression and its treatment, visit the National Institute of Mental Health online.

SOURCES: HealthDay News; William Carlezon, Ph.D., director, McLean Hospital Behavioral Genetics Laboratory, Belmont, Mass.; Bruce Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., president and psychiatrist-in-chief, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Mass.; Feb. 15, 2005, Biological Psychiatry; National Institute of Mental Health (www.nimh.nih.gov)
Author: Anne Thompson
Publication Date: Feb. 28, 2006
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