Background: A prominent finding in major depressive disorder (MDD) is distorted stress hormone dynamics, which is regulated by serotonergic brain signaling. An interesting feature of the cerebral serotonin system is the serotonin 4 receptor (5-HT4R), which is lower in depressed relative to healthy individuals and also has been highlighted as a promising novel antidepressant target. Here, we test the novel hypothesis that brain 5-HT4R availability in untreated patients with MDD is correlated with cortisol dynamics, indexed by the cortisol awakening response (CAR). Further, we evaluate if CAR changes with antidepressant treatment, including a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and if pretreatment CAR can predict treatment outcome.
Methods: Sixty-six patients (76% women) with a moderate to severe depressive episode underwent positron emission tomography imaging with [11C]SB207145 for quantification of brain 5-HT4R binding using BPND as outcome. Serial home sampling of saliva in the first hour from awakening was performed to assess CAR before and after 8 weeks of antidepressant treatment. Treatment outcome was measured by change in Hamilton Depression Rating Scale 6 items.
Results: In the unmedicated depressed state, prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices 5-HT4R binding was positively associated with CAR. CAR remained unaltered after 8 weeks of antidepressant treatment, and pretreatment CAR did not significantly predict treatment outcome.
Conclusions: Our findings highlight a link between serotonergic disturbances in MDD and cortisol dynamics, which likely is involved in disease and treatment mechanisms. Further, our data support 5-HT4R agonism as a promising precision target in patients with MDD and disturbed stress hormone dynamics.
Keywords: Major depressive disorder; SSRI; cortisol awakening response; serotonin 4 receptor; stress hormone dynamics.
© The Author(s) 2023. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of CINP.