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UTHSC Assistant Professor Kazuko Sakata, PhD, Receives $147,500 Grant to Study Anti-Depressive Effects of Enriched Environments Early in Life

Dr. Kazuko Sakata
Dr. Kazuko Sakata

An enriched environment that includes exercise, social interaction and mental stimulation has been proven to help prevent or reverse depression. But it’s not clear exactly when in life an enriched environment has the most anti-depressive effect.

Kazuko Sakata, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has received a two-year grant totaling $147,500 from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to research whether an enriched environment early in life is more effective than later in improving or preventing depression. She is also studying gene mechanisms in the brain that respond to the enriched environment. The goal is to develop effective interventions that can not only treat depression, but provide resilience in the brain to keep depression from developing.

“We know that an enriched environment is effective in preventing depression, but when is it most effective?” Dr. Sakata said. “We think that maybe when we give enriched environments early in life, the effect can last longer.” Plasticity in the young brain may allow for changes that may have a protective effect throughout life.

Her research with mice involves giving enriched environments at three stages in life — infancy, young adult and middle age — and monitoring the effects. “We hope this could be the fundamental study to apply to humans, too,” said Dr. Sakata, who joined the faculty of UTHSC in 2008 following postdoctoral work at the NIH. “Many laboratories study the effect of stress and how stress can cause depression or depression-like behavior in adults. But the unique point of this study is that we are focusing on the positive environment, not the negative environment, and its effects.”

Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people age 15-44, according to the NIMH. It affects roughly 14.8 million American adults annually at a cost of approximately $83 billion. Better treatment options are necessary, according to Dr. Sakata.

“The ultimate goal is to find out the mechanisms that can provide resilience in the brain against depression,” she said. “If we can find the mechanism, if we can support the mechanism, then we can prevent depression or treat depression.”