A role for inflammatory metabolites as modulators of the glutamate N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor in depression and suicidality

Brain Behav Immun. 2015 Jan;43:110-7. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2014.07.012. Epub 2014 Aug 12.


Background: Patients with depression and suicidality suffer from low-grade neuroinflammation. Pro-inflammatory cytokines activate indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase, an initial enzyme of the kynurenine pathway. This pathway produces neuroactive metabolites, including quinolinic- and kynurenic acid, binding to the glutamate N-methyl-d-aspartate-receptor, which is hypothesized to be part of the neural mechanisms underlying symptoms of depression. We therefore hypothesized that symptoms of depression and suicidality would fluctuate over time in patients prone to suicidal behavior, depending on the degree of inflammation and kynurenine metabolite levels in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

Methods: We measured cytokines and kynurenine metabolites in CSF, collected from suicide attempters at repeated occasions over 2 years (total patient samples n=143, individuals n=30) and healthy controls (n=36). The association between the markers and psychiatric symptoms was assessed using the Montgomery Asberg Depression Rating Scale and the Suicide Assessment Scale.

Results: Quinolinic acid was increased and kynurenic acid decreased over time in suicidal patients versus healthy controls. Furthermore, we found a significant association between low kynurenic acid and severe depressive symptoms, as well as between high interleukin-6 levels and more severe suicidal symptoms.

Conclusions: We demonstrate a long-term dysregulation of the kynurenine pathway in the central nervous system of suicide attempters. An increased load of inflammatory cytokines was coupled to more severe symptoms. We therefore suggest that patients with a dysregulated kynurenine pathway are vulnerable to develop depressive symptoms upon inflammatory conditions, as a result the excess production of the NMDA-receptor agonist quinolinic acid. This study provides a neurobiological framework supporting the use of NMDA-receptor antagonists in the treatment of suicidality and depression.

Keywords: Cerebrospinal fluid; Glutamate; Interleukin-6; Kynurenic acid; Quinolinic acid; Suicide.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cytokines / cerebrospinal fluid*
  • Depressive Disorder / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / cerebrospinal fluid*
  • Kynurenic Acid / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Kynurenine / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Quinolinic Acid / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / metabolism*
  • Suicidal Ideation*
  • Suicide, Attempted*
  • Young Adult


  • Cytokines
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Kynurenine
  • Quinolinic Acid
  • Kynurenic Acid