Male depression is not as well understood as female hormonal depression. The effect of female sex hormones on our mood and psyche has been well-documented. Phenomena such as post-partum depression and mood swings just prior to menstruation are well-known, and there have been a number of scientific studies confirming them.
Until recently, though, the link between our mood and the male sex hormone testosterone has not been nearly as well understood. A study conducted by researchers at MedUni Vienna and published in Biological Psychiatry offers the first glimpse into how testosterone affects our mood.
In a nutshell, the study concluded that there is a direct link between testosterone levels and feelings of happiness. Testosterone also supports existing antidepressant medications, allowing them to work better.
As they age, men typically become more prone to depression. Conventional wisdom has been that the drop-off in testosterone production is to blame, but the new study is the first to show that testosterone actually increases the number of serotonin transporters in the brain.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, most responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness. Serotonin transporters are proteins that help regulate the concentration of serotonin in our brains. By increasing their number, the overall serotonin levels in our brains also increase, contributing to our emotional well-being.
Antidepressant drugs bind to these proteins, as well. By increasing production of serotonin transporters, testosterone creates a better environment for these medications, allowing them to more effectively treat male depression.
The MedUni Vienna researchers worked with transsexuals undergoing hormone therapy in the course of their study. Georg Kranz, the study’s primary author, explained the design of the study.
“Transsexuals are people who feel that they are living in the wrong body and who therefore want high doses of opposite gender hormone therapy to adapt their appearance to that of the other gender. Genetic women are given testosterone, while genetic men are given oestradiol and medications to suppress testosterone production.”
Siegfried Kasper, head of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at MedUni Vienna, elaborated further on their findings and results.
“The study has shown that testosterone increases the potential binding sites for commonly prescribed antidepressants such as SSRIs in the brain and therefore provides major insights into how sex hormones affect the human brain and gender differences in psychiatric illnesses.”
Employing positron emission tomography (PET), the researchers were able to measure serotonin transporter levels in the study participants. Four weeks of testosterone therapy resulted in significantly higher serotonin transporter levels. The study established a firm link between testosterone levels in the blood and serotonin transporter levels in the brain.
The study opens up potential applications for testosterone therapy in treating male depression and other emotional disorders. Testosterone improves our mood both directly and by supporting antidepressant medications, and the reverse is also true. Low levels of testosterone can lead to male depression and feelings of sadness.
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