Secondary to excessive melatonin synthesis, the consumption of tryptophan from outside the blood-brain barrier and melatonin over-signaling in the pars tuberalis may be central to the pathophysiology of winter depression

Med Hypotheses. 2017 Jan;98:69-75. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2016.11.020. Epub 2016 Nov 28.

Abstract

Seasonal affective disorder is defined as recurrent episodes of major depression, mania, or hypomania with seasonal onset and remission. In this class of mood disturbances, a unipolar major depressive disorder known as winter depression is common in populations living in northern latitudes far from the equator. Winter depression repeatedly occurs in the autumn or winter and remits in the spring or summer, and its etiopathogenesis is currently unknown. However, one can surmise that excessive melatonin production during the reduced duration of daily sunlight in the autumn and winter plays a role in its pathophysiology. Melatonin is synthesized from tryptophan within the pineal gland, which is located outside the blood-brain barrier, and overproduction of melatonin may lead to augmented consumption of tryptophan, from which serotonin is synthesized. As tryptophan is captured from the blood and excessively utilized by the pineal gland, tryptophan blood levels may decline; as such, it is more difficult for tryptophan to pass through the blood-brain barrier and reach the serotonergic neurons as the ratio of tryptophan to the other amino acids that compete for the same transporter to enter the brain is diminished. As such, less tryptophan is available for serotonin synthesis. Moreover, melatonin is known to modulate thyrotropin expression in the thyrotrophic cells of the pars tuberalis of the pituitary gland, and overproduction of melatonin in the autumn or winter months may cause excessive signaling in the pars tuberalis, diminishing its release of thyrotropin and resulting in central hypothyroidism. Both conditions reduced serotonin production and central hypothyroidism may cause depression. Furthermore, the excessive synthesis of melatonin during the autumn and winter may negatively affect the expression of neuromedin U in the pars tuberalis, causing an increased appetite, which is common in winter depression patients. The hypersomnia common in winter depressive patients can be ascribed to excessive circulating melatonin, a hormone that increases the propensity for sleep. Furthermore, central hypothyroidism may also increase sleepiness, as it is known that hypothyroid patients usually experience excessive somnolence. In this theoretical article, we also propose studies to evaluate winter depression patients with regard to the necessity, or not, of offering them an increased amount of tryptophan in their diets during the autumn and winter. We also suggest that the administration of triiodothyronine to winter depressive patients may mitigate their central hypothyroidism.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood-Brain Barrier*
  • Central Nervous System / metabolism
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / metabolism*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / physiopathology
  • Diet
  • Humans
  • Light
  • Melatonin / metabolism*
  • Pituitary Gland / physiopathology*
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder / metabolism*
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder / physiopathology
  • Seasons
  • Serotonin / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction
  • Thyroid Hormones / metabolism
  • Tryptophan / metabolism*

Substances

  • Thyroid Hormones
  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan
  • Melatonin