A neurotrophic hypothesis of depression: role of synaptogenesis in the actions of NMDA receptor antagonists

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2012 Sep 5;367(1601):2475-84. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0357.


Molecular and cellular studies have demonstrated opposing actions of stress and antidepressant treatment on the expression of neurotrophic factors, particularly brain-derived neurotrophic factor, in limbic structures of the brain. These changes in neurotrophic factor expression and function result in structural alterations, including regulation of neurogenesis, dendrite length and spine density in hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (PFC). The deleterious effects of stress could contribute to the reduced volume of these brain regions in depressed patients. Conversely, the actions of antidepressant treatment could be mediated in part by blocking or reversing the atrophy caused by stress and depression. Recent studies have identified a novel, rapid-acting antidepressant, ketamine, in treatment-resistant depressed patients that addresses the limitations of currently available agents (i.e. delayed onset of action and low response rates). We have found that ketamine, an N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist, causes a rapid induction of synaptogenesis and spine formation in the PFC via stimulation of the mammalian target of the rapamycin signalling pathway and increased synthesis of synaptic proteins. These effects of ketamine rapidly reverse the atrophy of PFC neurons caused by chronic stress and correspond to rapid behavioural actions of ketamine in models of depression. Characterization of a novel signalling pathway also identifies new cellular targets that could result in rapid and efficacious antidepressant actions without the side effects of ketamine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / genetics
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / metabolism
  • Dendrites / genetics
  • Dendrites / metabolism
  • Dendrites / pathology
  • Depression / physiopathology*
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Humans
  • Ketamine / pharmacology*
  • Neurogenesis
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Sirolimus / pharmacology
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Synapses / drug effects*
  • Synapses / metabolism
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / genetics
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / metabolism


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Ketamine
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Sirolimus