New Research Regarding Serotonin’s Role in Mental Health and Addiction

We now understand much more about the human body than we once did, but there are still many mysteries to be uncovered that may help us improve health and quality of life.  The brain is especially complex, which is one reason that many mental health issues and psychiatric disorders are still lacking highly effective treatment. Discoveries about the brain over the last fifty to one hundred years, however, have enabled us to better explain issues such as mood disorders and addiction and to create medications and therapies to treat these diseases.  Despite monumental progress, we still have a long way to go in understanding bodily function on a cellular level.

Serotonin, a chemical first identified and named in 1948, has a wide array of functions in the body.  Research has discovered that serotonin is a neurotransmitter, meaning it allows for communication between nerve cells, and plays a role in appetite, sleep cycles, motor function, and cognitive capability.  Perhaps most significantly of all, serotonin has been found to impact emotional wellbeing and overall mental health. People found to have serotonin deficiencies have a much higher rate of depression. Due to this connection, many anti-depressant medications created to treat depression and anxiety symptoms focus on increasing the presence of serotonin in the brain.  While these medications have had a great deal of success, even experts are still unsure as to exactly how these drugs work.

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Serotonin in the Nucleus

Prior to recent research, science understood the activities of serotonin to occur on the surface of the cell.  However, after observing that serotonin was able to enter the nucleus of the cell, where DNA resides, researchers decided to test a hypothesis that serotonin might be influencing DNA function.  The new research indicated that the scientists were correct about neurotransmitter activity within the nucleus, and serotonin can actually switch on genes inside cells. Because the DNA inside each individual cell is basically the same, chemical markers are placed at specific points on DNA to turn genes on or off or to amplify or lessen their function.  DNA is wrapped around spool-like proteins called histones, and the activity of a particular gene is influenced by how tightly that spool is wound. These new observations are being considered groundbreaking because they tell us that serotonin molecules can attach themselves to DNA histones, thereby loosening the spool and increasing gene expression.  

Implications for Mental Health and Addiction

While the discovery of serotonin’s activity in the nucleus of a cell is exciting, it creates more questions than answers.  This new information, however, can direct scientists and medical researchers interested in treating psychological disorders towards new areas of experimentation.  Because serotonin’s role in mental health and mood regulation has been well established, this new information may better explain exactly how selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors used in anti-depressants works.  Understanding the mechanisms behind the drug may help scientists to create more effective treatments in the future.  

Since serotonin is just one of several neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation, this new research creates questions about the function of other chemicals as well.  Dopamine, for example, is a neurotransmitter involved in creating a sense of wellbeing and chemically rewarding activities that make us feel good. These can be healthy activities such as exercise and creative expression, but dopamine is also present in large quantities in the brain during alcohol and drug use.  This is one part of the brain’s addiction mechanism, which brings us to another hopeful aspect of this new research. If chemicals such as dopamine are similarly able to enter the cell nucleus and affect gene expression, this may tell us a great deal about addiction and how it can be reversed.  

Until we can better understand the human brain and create full-proof treatment methods for psychiatric illness and addiction, we must use the resources available to us to make mental health and addiction recovery possible. For those struggling with mental illness and addiction, learning about the chemical processes of the human brain, as well as the environmental and psychological factors that may influence those processes can be incredibly empowering.  Additionally, while science is one critical aspect of achieving lifelong recovery for patients with mental health issues and substance use disorders, it is only one piece of the puzzle. Many individuals become addicted to drugs and alcohol due to underlying emotional problems or a history of trauma. A quality treatment program can incorporate the best medicinal methods, effective therapy techniques, and an environment conducive to creative and spiritual growth, to create successful outcomes for those struggling to maintain mental wellness and sobriety.

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