People with depression have low levels of this energy-producing blood biomarker, according to a joint study

    Abdulaziz Sobh

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    A new study suggests that low levels of a specific biomarker in the blood are related to the severity and duration of depression.

    The collaborative study conducted by Stanford University and Rockefeller University found that people with depression had low levels of acetyl-L-carnitine, which helps the body produce energy.

    Although it occurs naturally in the body, acetyl-L-carnitine is also available for purchase at pharmacies and other retailers as a nutritional supplement.

    In a statement, Natalie Rasgon, author of the study and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford, said the study offers "an exciting addition to our understanding of the mechanisms of depressive illness."

    The study was published on July 30 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    A series of experiments with rodents found that a deficiency in the biomarker was related to more behaviors related to depression. When the animals received acetyl-L-carnitine as a supplement, their behavior returned to normal, the researchers said.

    In a separate study with humans, the researchers examined patients who had been diagnosed with depression. The results showed that depressed patients had much lower levels of acetyl-L-carnitine in their blood. The researchers also found that patients with the lowest levels had the most severe cases of depression.

    "In patients with depression, something is causing a problem in the mechanisms related to the biology of (acetyl-L-carnitine)," said Carla Nasca, a scientist at Rockefeller University and one of the authors of the study, in a statement. "And, surprisingly, the deficiency in (acetyl-L-carnitine) is even stronger in patients who do not respond to standard antidepressants."

    Rasgon said more research is needed to determine if supplementation of patients with acetyl-L-carnitine could improve symptoms. He also warned about taking supplements from the pharmacy.

    "We have many previous examples of how nutritional supplements widely available over the counter and not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (eg, omega-3 fatty acids or various herbal substances) are touted as panaceas for you - name it, and then do not give up, "she said.