Study offers insight as to why psychiatric medications only work for some

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  • Treatments for psychiatric conditions aren't always successful
  • A possible reason for this challenge lies in the make-up of people's brains
  • Researchers found that specific proteins function differently in the brains of males compared to females

Schizophrenia, depression and anxiety are important psychiatric conditions to consider when addressing public health, and effective treatments are crucial.

While many treatment options are available for these conditions, they are not effective in all patients, and as a result, many don't improve.

One of the reasons why psychiatric medication might only work in some instances is because mental illness is experienced differently across genders.

A recent study published in eLIfe offers clues as to why these challenges and differences exist between patients.

A protein called AKT

Scientists specialising in behavioural genetics and physiology conducted an experiment that looked at the brains of mice in order to establish how a key protein in the brain, known as AKT, functions, and whether there are any sex-specific differences. 

“The ultimate goal is to find the kink in the armour of mental illness – the proteins in the brain that we can specifically target without impacting other organs and causing side effects,” said corresponding author, Charles Hoeffer.

“Personalisation is also key. We need to stop hitting every mental illness with the same hammer.”

What does AKT do in the brain?

AKT was identified in previous research as being vital for neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of networks in the brain to change their response to stimuli (or experience) through reorganisation and growth.

Hoeffer better explains this concept through sketching a scenario: “Let's say you see a shark and you're scared and your brain wants to form a memory. You have to make new proteins to encode that memory.”

In such an instance, AKT is one such protein that allows you to encode specific memories by triggering other proteins. Scientists say that without AKT, old memories cannot be removed in order to make room for new memories.

Mutations in the protein have been associated with conditions like PTSD, schizophrenia, autism and even Alzheimer’s.

AKT functions differently in males and females

Findings of the current study indicate that AKT acts differently in the brains of males compared to females, and also relied on previous research by Hoeffer that suggests that there are different kinds of AKT with different functions.

“We found the difference between males and females to be so great it became the focus of our work,” said Hoeffer.

He went on to say that more knowledge is needed about the differences between male and female brains in order for different treatment options to be developed.

“This study is an important step in that direction.”

Image credit: Pexels

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