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Researchers hope a drug used for type 2 diabetes may be effective in treating depression. Yana Iskayeva/Getty Images
  • A new diabetes drug appears to be effective in treating depression-like symptoms in mice.
  • Researchers say if these results can be duplicated in humans, they could pave the way for depression treatments with fewer side effects than current chemical antidepressants.
  • They add that their study furthers the understanding of the links between metabolic factors in the body and psychological conditions.

A type 2 diabetes drug belonging to the same class of drugs as weight-loss drugs Ozempic and Wegovy could become a novel treatment for depression, according to a study published today in the journal Brain and Behavior.

Researchers reported that mice treated with dulaglutide — a long-acting glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonist (GLP-1) — had fewer depression-like behaviors after being subjected to four weeks of chronic stress compared to a control group of mice that underwent the same conditions but were not treated with the drug.

“Currently, the widely available pharmacological treatments are synthetic chemical antidepressants, which require weeks to months to elicit a response, have several side effects, and may even be toxic in high doses,” the study authors wrote. “As such, there is an urgent need for novel therapies with fewer adverse effects and greater efficacy.”

The scientists also observed chemical changes in the mice, including 64 distinct metabolites affected by the drugs and four chemical pathways that appeared to induce changes in depression-like behavior.

These findings follow similar mouse studies into dulaglutide, suggesting that it may help with vascular dementia, increase memory ability, and reduce Alzheimer’s-like cognitive impairments, the study authors noted.

“Overall, this is a robust animal model study,” said Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University who was not involved in the study.

“The challenges are that… we are unsure what human health implications are and not all the parts of the brain were studied, as depression is a complex disorder affecting multiple parts of the brain not investigated in this research,” he told Medical News Today.

Dr. Angela Fitch, the president of the Obesity Medicine Association and the chief medical officer at knownwell, agreed.

“We don’t know if it will be applicable in humans, but it is a good understanding of some of the mechanisms behind GLP-1 and mood and behavior. We need more research on this overall,” Fitch, who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today.

It might be surprising that a group of drugs — GLP-1 agonists — could be effective at treating diabetes and obesity as well as neurological conditions such as depression, but experts say there are good social and cognitive reasons for this link.

“Several metabolic disorders, such as obesity and diabetes, are the main risk factors for depression,” the study authors noted. “Indeed, the successful application of anti-diabetic agents in treating neurological diseases suggests that similar drugs may also have beneficial effects on depression.”

“Activating the GLP-1 receptor does a lot of amazing things in the human body and is good for us for many reasons,” Fitch said. “Activating the GLP-1 receptor might cause different changes in neurotransmitters that directly affect our mood. Some people, due to weight issues, have difficulty sleeping and being active (because of joint pain, etc.). The more weight they lose, the more they sleep better and move more, thus also improving mood.”

Then there’s how the body produces and consumes energy, which GLP-1 RAs appear to be able to influence.

“Changes in energy production and consumption may have multiple effects on brain function, as GLP-1 agonists affect energy metabolism,” Khubchandani said. “More research is also needed on the long-term impact on brain structure.”

So far, studies into using dulaglutide to treat depression and other neurological conditions have been limited to animal studies, which means there are more studies needed and more time before these treatments can be tested and deemed safe and effective for humans.

However, experts say these studies are necessary to learn how the mechanisms of these increasingly popular classes of drugs work.

In the meantime, if you are experiencing symptoms of depression, experts advise you to seek help from a mental health professional.

“We should not take changes in our mood lightly,” Fitch said. “Healthful nutrition, good sleep, and more physical activity also help to improve mood, but some people may need medications to treat depression. Having a doctor who can look at the whole picture of you and help with your mood, lifestyle optimization, and weight and how those all are interconnected is important. A holistic, comprehensive approach to whole body-and-mind health is important.”