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Increased Number of Vasopressin- and Oxytocin-Expressing Neurons in the Paraventricular Nucleus of the Hypothalamus in Depression

Jan S. Purba, MD, PhD; Witte J. G. Hoogendijk, MD; Michel A. Hofman, PhD; Dick F. Swaab, MD, PhD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1996;53(2):137-143. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1996.01830020055007.
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Background:  Cerebrospinal fluid levels of arginine vasopressin (AVP) and oxytocin (OXT) have been found to change in mood disorders. In the present study, the numbers of AVP-immunoreactive (IR) and OXT-IR neurons were determined in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the human hypothalamus.

Methods:  Postmortem brain tissue was fixed in formalin, embedded in paraffin, and stained for AVP and OXT using immunocytochemical techniques. The number of IR neurons in the PVN was estimated by morphometry in eight depressed patients ranging in age from 21 to 85 years and eight age-matched controls ranging in age from 23 to 88 years.

Results:  The numbers of AVP-IR and OXT-IR neurons in the PVN of patients with mood disorder were increased by 56% and 23%, respectively. No differences were found in AVP-IR or OXT-IR cell numbers between three patients with major depression and three patients with bipolar depression. The numbers of AVP-IR and OXT-IR neurons in two patients with depression not otherwise specified were within the same range as in the six other patients with a mood disorder.

Conclusions:  The AVP and OXT neurons were activated in the PVN in patients with major depression or bipolar disorder. This activation may be associated with activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in these patients, since both AVP and OXT are known to potentiate the effects of corticotropin-releasing hormone. Because of their central effects, activation of AVP and OXT neurons may also be related to symptoms of major depression or bipolar disorder.


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