Yoga can be possible treatment for depression



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June 6, 2007  
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Boston University release — Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and McLean Hospital have found that practicing yoga may elevate brain gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) levels, the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter.

The findings, which appear in the May issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, suggest that the practice of yoga be explored as a possible treatment for depression and anxiety, disorders associated with low GABA levels.

The World Health Organization reports that mental illness makes up to 15% of disease in the world. Depression and anxiety disorders both contribute to this burden and are associated with low GABA levels. Currently, these disorders have been successfully treated with pharmaceutical agents designed to increase GABA levels.

What are GABA levels? Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that is inhibitory, that is, it decreases the ability of other neurotransmitters to work. GABA is involved in our level of excitability. Rather than encouraging communication between cells such as Dopamine, Serotonin or Norepinephrine – GABA reduces, discourages, and blocks communication. This neurotransmitter is important in brain areas involving emotion and anxiety.

When GABA is in the normal range in the brain, we are not overly aroused or anxious. At the same time, we have appropriate reactions to situations in our environment. GABA is the communication speed controller, making sure all brain communications are operating at the right speed and with the correct intensity. Too little GABA in the brain, the communication becomes out of control, overstimulated, and chemically unstable. Too much GABA and we are overly relaxed and sedated, often to the point that normal reactions are impaired.

Low levels of GABA are associated with Bipolar Disorder, Mania. With GABA levels below average, the brain is too stimulated. We begin talking rapidly, staying up for days at a time, and develop wild and grandiose ideas. In a Manic state, we are so “high” and out of control that social problems are quick to develop, often due to hypersexuality, excessive spending, reckless decisions, risk-taking behavior, and grandiose ideas. We may feel so good that we think we are a heavenly spirit, an intellectual genius, or possessing extraordinary powers. I personally had one patient who locked himself in his mobile home and spent one week rewriting the New Testament in “hillbilly”. Another, with limited education, began purchasing books on the Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein, sensing he may be able to use the information to invent “warp drive”.

Low levels of GABA are also associated with problems of poor impulse control, including clinical conditions such as gambling, temper tantrums, and stealing. When GABA is low in the brain, impulsive behaviors are not inhibited (stopped) by logical or reasonable thinking.

In the present study, magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging allowed the researchers to compare the GABA levels of 8 subjects prior to and after one hour of yoga, with 11 subjects who did no yoga but instead read for one hour.

The researchers found a 27% increase in GABA levels in the yoga practitioner group after their session, but no change in the comparison subject group after their reading session.

The acquisition of the GABA levels was done using a magnetic resonance spectroscopy technique developed by J. Eric Jensen, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an associate physicist at McLean Hospital.

According to the researchers, yoga has shown promise in improving symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and epilepsy. “Our findings clearly demonstrate that in experienced yoga practitioners, brain GABA levels increase after a session of yoga,” said lead author Chris Streeter, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at BUSM and a research associate at McLean Hospital.

“This study contributes to the understanding of how the GABA system is affected by both pharmacologic and behavioral interventions and will help to guide the development of new treatments for low GABA states,” said co-author Domenic Ciraulo, MD, professor and chairman of the department of psychiatry at BUSM.

“The development of an inexpensive, widely available intervention such as yoga that has no side effects but is effective in alleviating the symptoms of disorders associated with low GABA levels has clear public health advantage,” added senior author Perry Renshaw, MD, PhD, director of the Brain Imaging Center at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital.

This study was supported in part by grants from the national Institute of Drug Abuse; the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; the National Center for Research Resources, and the Gennaro Acampora Charity Trust to the Division of Psychiatry, Boston Medical Center.