Cutting-Edge Tools to Combat Depression

Moving past the “trial and error” approach to psychiatric health

Depression is predicted to become the most common world health problem by 2020. Presently, up to 70% of patients continue to have depressive symptoms after their first antidepressant treatment, and up to 50% will stop taking antidepressants due to their side effects. Despite the grim statistics, progress in understanding the underpinnings of depression have been frustratingly slow. While many subtypes of depression exist, we currently lack the molecular tools to capture them. Dr. Snezana Milanovic, of Harvard Medical School, works to identify the “molecular alphabet” of depression. This will help accurately predict and treat depression than does the trial and error approach scientists have relied upon. Determined to alleviate human suffering, Dr. Milanovic and her lab ultimately hope to help decrease healthcare and work disability costs associated with depression treatment.

Using brain and blood metabolomics, a young research discipline that provides a window into numerous small molecules, Dr. Milanovic and her team are gaining an implicit understanding about gene-environment interactions. Collaborating with international and national researchers to build sensitive, cutting-edge tools that will efficiently detect various small metabolites in the brain and blood, Dr. Milanovic is applying these new detection methods to human models of stress resilience and susceptibility, depression, and early brain development. Therefore, as a young investigator tackling big research questions, Dr. Milanovic delineates from the traditional approach of detecting and treating psychiatric illness, and offers a refreshing perspective on the future of treatment and diagnoses.

Current research includes:

  • Depression: Dr. Milanovic’s depression research validates novel cell and molecular tools that can capture, more precisely than previously, the causes of depression and lead to earlier detection with more effective treatment.

  • Early Brain Development: At its beginning stages, Dr. Milanovic’s Early Brain Development global psychiatry project is aimed at detecting molecular footprints of early brain development patterns predictive of subsequent psychiatric diseases risk.

  • Stress Resilience and Susceptibility: Dr. Milanovic and her team hope to map genes-environment interactions and identify biomarkers predicting stress resilience and depression risk. Consequently, this project has a high potential to identify novel drug targets.

Bio

Dr. Snezana Milanovic always loved the natural sciences and art; at a young age, she developed a passion for both chemistry and literature. In fact, as a girl, she would enter regional and national competitions for chemistry while avidly reading biographies about scientists. She was particularly captivated by the work and life stories of Maria Sklodowska-Curie and Sigmund Freud. With fantastic parents who further excited Dr. Milanovic about both the arts and the sciences, she entered her first chemistry class when she was twelve years old. These early interests formed her attraction to the secrets of neuroscience: small molecules in the brain and work with psychiatric patients.

Dr. Milanovic continues to weave together science and art as she believes science is art. She explains, “The scientific way of thinking is sharp and mathematical, but in order to see a big picture, artistic creativity is necessary.” Relating the thrill of discovery in science to a good plot twist in a novel, she says there is nothing like the feeling “when your hypothesis gets blown out of the way.” As she continues her research, Dr. Milanovic continues to be motivated by the pleasure of building up a research story and a strong call to alleviate human suffering.

In her free time, aside from research, Dr. Milanovic enjoys art and music. Her love of jazz, contemporary classical music, art exhibits, and theatre, has led to a regular attendance at concerts and other art events. In fact, she has formed a theater club that encourages her to continue to develop her passion for theatrical arts. Additionally, she enjoys cooking, yoga and meditation. Above all, Dr. Milanovic enjoys being surrounded by friends, learning about different cultures and giving back by helping others.

Publications

Antidepressive treatment stimulates neurogenesis in the human hippocampus

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Medial prefrontal cortical activation during working memory differentiates schizophrenia and bipolar psychotic patients: a pilot

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An fMRI study of working memory in persons with bipolar disorder or at genetic risk for bipolar disorder

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Hyperactivity and hyperconnectivity of the default network in schizophrenia and in first-degree relatives of persons with schizo

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Beneficial effects of the antiglutamatergic agent riluzole in a patient diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and major

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Production of the FOS protein after contextual fear-conditioning of C57BL/6N mice

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Awards

Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award

Young Investigator Award, National Alliance for Research of Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD)

Sarasota Opera Benefit, Southwest Florida Investigator

Young Investigator Award, Brain and Behavior Research Foundation Award