Emory University Theory: Have We Become an Inflamed, Depressed Nation?

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Emory University researchers have produced a research paper theorizing that a powerful connection between dopamine, effort and inflammatory response represents a dynamic systematic mechanism to support the human body to conserve energy.  Published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the Emory team put forth a theoretical framework and computational model to evaluate the theory.

The Theory

Michael Treadway, associate professor in Emory’s psychology department, stated, “When your body is fighting an infection or healing a wound, your brain needs a mechanism to recalibrate your motivation to do other things, so you don’t use up too much of your energy.” Treadway noted, “We now have strong evidence suggesting that the immune system disrupts the dopamine system to help the brain perform this calibration.”


If this theory is correct the impact on treating depression and other behavioral disorders could take on a different approach—a focus on inflammation. Andrew Miller, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in Emory’s School of Medicine and the Winship Cancer Institute said, “if our theory is correct, then it could have a tremendous impact on treating cases of depression and other behavioral disorders that may be driven by inflammation.” He continued, “it would open up opportunities for the development of therapies that target energy utilization by immune cells, which would be something completely new in our field.”

Supporting Data

Previous research revealed inflammatory cytokines—signaling molecules used by the immune system—affect the mesolimbic dopamine system. Studies by Miller et al have provided evidence of an association among an elevated immune system, reduced levels of dopamine, and motivation, and some diagnoses of depression, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders.

Coming Soon: Clinical Trial

The research team will continue to employ computational models and methods to continuously test their theory in an actual clinical trial on depression.

Lead Research/Investigator

Michael Treadway

Andrew Miller