The immune-mediated alteration of serotonin and glutamate: towards an integrated view of depression

Mol Psychiatry. 2007 Nov;12(11):988-1000. doi: 10.1038/ Epub 2007 Apr 24.


Beside the well-known deficiency in serotonergic neurotransmission as pathophysiological correlate of major depression (MD), recent evidence points to a pivotal role of increased glutamate receptor activation as well. However, cause and interaction of these neurotransmitter alterations are not understood. In this review, we present a hypothesis integrating current concepts of neurotransmission and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation with findings on immunological alterations and alterations in brain morphology in MD. An immune activation including increased production of proinflammatory cytokines has repeatedly been described in MD. Proinflammatory cytokines such as interleukin-2, interferon-gamma, or tumor necrosis factor-alpha activate the tryptophan- and serotonin-degrading enzyme indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO). Depressive states during inflammatory somatic disorders are also associated with increased proinflammatory cytokines and increased consumption of tryptophan via activation of IDO. An enhanced consumption of serotonin and its precursor tryptophan through IDO activation could well explain the reduced availability of serotonergic neurotransmission in MD. An increased activation of IDO and its subsequent enzyme kynurenine monooxygenase by proinflammatory cytokines, moreover, leads to an enhanced production of quinolinic acid, a strong agonist of the glutamatergic N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor. In inflammatory states of the central nervous system, IDO is mainly activated in microglial cells, which preferentially metabolize tryptophan to the NMDA receptor agonist quinolinic acid, whereas astrocytes - counteracting this metabolism due to the lack of an enzyme of this metabolism - have been observed to be reduced in MD. Therefore the type 1/type 2 immune response imbalance, associated with an astrocyte/microglia imbalance, leads to serotonergic deficiency and glutamatergic overproduction. Astrocytes are further strongly involved in re-uptake and metabolic conversion of glutamate. The reduced number of astrocytes could contribute to both, a diminished counterregulation of IDO activity in microglia and an altered glutamatergic neurotransmission. Further search for antidepressant agents should take into account anti-inflammatory drugs, for example, cyclooxygenase-2 inhibitors, might exert antidepressant effects by acting on serotonergic deficiency, glutamatergic hyperfunction and antagonizing neurotoxic effects of quinolinic acid.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Depression* / immunology
  • Depression* / metabolism
  • Depression* / therapy
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Serotonin / metabolism*


  • Serotonin
  • Glutamic Acid