Are you feeling down? Want to sleep more than usual? Is spending your evenings at home in front of the television with comfort food more appealing than going out with friends? If so, you – like 11 million other Americans – may be suffering from the winter blues.

Also aptly called SAD – for seasonal affective disorder – winter depression is thought to be linked to lack of sunlight; thus, existing treatments include sitting under a special type of lamp that mimics the sun’s rays. However, this therapy does not help vast numbers of sufferers. And even if you don’t have SAD yourself, odds are you know someone who does. The disorder tends to run in families, with women four times more likely to have it than men.

It’s true that towards the end of winter just about everyone is sick of the weather, but this feeling can be quite disabling for those particularly sensitive to SAD. It doesn’t help that the “season” of seasonal affective disorder is quite long: as the Yale School of Medicine states, “The symptoms of SAD usually begin to appear gradually throughout September and October and last through March or April.” For the susceptible, this means that SAD can consume more than half of the year!

Given that we don’t have a complete understanding of SAD, it – like all forms of depression – needs further study and new, improved treatments. Fortunately, the Weizmann Institute of Science is conducting year-round research into depression and other mental disorders, investigating root causes and working to develop more helpful therapies. Here are a few shining examples to brighten your day:

  • Mood disorders such as depression affect around 10% of the world’s population, and yet the molecular and cellular mechanisms behind these problems are still only partly understood. Enter Prof. Alon Chen and his team, who recently identified a tiny molecule that not only plays a role in depression and anxiety, but also affects response to antidepressants. Given that only a small number of patients are actually helped by today’s medications, it could be a useful therapeutic molecule. Read more.

  • When the body’s natural response to stress gets out of balance it can have psychological and physiological consequences – and being trapped in what feels like a never-ending winter is certainly stressful. Besides being a known cause – and symptom – of SAD and other forms of depression, stress plays a role in generalized anxiety disorder, anorexia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), metabolic disorders, and heart-related diseases (and that’s a partial list). 

    Thus, it’s happy news that Prof. Chen has also identified a family of proteins, part of what’s called the urocortin system, that play a prominent role in regulating stress and anxiety. His research could help those who struggle to “turn off” their stress response.
    Read more.

  • Since we know that SAD runs in families, we know that it has a genetic component. Ever since the sequencing of the human genome in 2000, our understanding of the role genes play in mental conditions has dramatically improved. And thanks to new imaging capabilities and other novel tools, the Weizmann Institute’s renowned geneticists will now be able to look at the genetic roots of diseases.

    This is particularly important for mental disorders, where clinicians currently rely on observed symptoms or a patient’s description. Having a quantifiable picture of the sufferer’s brain function will change the face of treatment. Drug therapies will be developed based on detailed knowledge of the molecular structure of relevant proteins.

    Such work is representative of what will take place at a cutting-edge new lab, a joint initiative between the Weizmann Institute and the distinguished Max Planck Society. Called the Max Planck – Weizmann Laboratory for Experimental Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Neurogenetics – and headed by Prof. Chen – it is already starting to investigate the causes of cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and neurological disorders.

    The lab was developed to help remedy a growing public health threat: the fact that some 450 million people worldwide suffer from some form of mental illness. It is increasingly clear that these disorders arise from a complex interplay between genetics and environment, such as with SAD. Thus, the lab may be able to provide crucial new information about the origins of SAD, as well as propose potential new treatments – hopefully in time for the next Arctic express.
    Read more.