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  • 16/23
Finding New Treatments for Mental Illness
Finding New Treatments for Mental Illness

Felix Mayer, Ph.D. Photography by Alex Dolce

FAU researchers are one step closer to uncovering medications to treat mental illnesses that are expected to be associated with a faster onset of action and fewer unwanted side effects.

“Currently available medications for depression and anxiety-related disorders, such as PTSD, are associated either with a delayed onset of action or unwanted side effects,” said Felix Mayer, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow working with Randy Blakely, Ph.D., professor of biomedical science in FAU Schmidt College of Medicine and executive director of the FAU Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute.

Mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety-related disorders (e.g. social phobias) are currently often treated with drugs classified as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which work by increasing the neurotransmitter serotonin

in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical that is associated with prosocial behaviors, elevated mood and the regulation of sleep. In contrast to SSRIs, which work by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin, recent clinical findings identified the potential of compounds that actively release serotonin, as opposed to the mere inhibition of reuptake. However, currently available agents that release serotonin also release the dopamine in the reward center of the brain and are therefore associated with abuse liability.

In preclinical experiments, Mayer and others identified the potential of certain substances that are based on the structure of cathinone – a component that is found in the shrub catha edulis. By modifying the structure of the Cathinone, the researchers were able to identify lead compounds that promote the release of serotonin without releasing dopamine in the reward center of the brain. Moreover, the compounds identified in this study did not bind to targets that are associated with potential unwanted side effects, such as cardiovascular complications or neurotoxicity.

“We have now identified lead compounds that showed promise in preclinical models to achieve both a fast onset of action and reduced probability to evoke unwanted side effects,” Mayer said.

In summary, this multi-national collaborative study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, lead by author Mayer and colleagues “identified compounds that could propel the field forward and aid the design of compounds that are expected to help those affected by disorders for which elevation of serotonin has proven beneficial,” he said.

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