TUESDAY, Dec. 8, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Millions of Americans battle depression, and many search for a medication that can help ease the condition. Now, researchers report in a small, early trial that an experimental antidepressant may be a safe and effective new option.
"We need more treatments for depression," said Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, president of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in New York City. "Current treatments for depression are effective for many people, but they don't work for everyone."
"This study looks at a new, potential medication with a different mechanism of action than currently available antidepressants," said Borenstein, who was not involved in the study.
The drug, known only as NSI-189, is meant to stimulate production of new brain cells -- a process called neurogenesis.
This phase 1 study included 24 adults with major depression who were randomly assigned to take either the drug or a placebo for 28 days. They were then followed for another 56 days.
Patients who took the drug showed improvements in depression symptoms. And, the effects appeared to last for several months after they stopped taking the drug, according to the study published online Dec. 8 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
The study was funded by Neuralstem, the company that is developing the drug.
"Our study finds that this novel compound promotes neurogenesis in a specific part of the brain, is well tolerated and may have robust antidepressant effects," study author Dr. Maurizio Fava, executive director of the Clinical Trials Network & Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said in a hospital news release.
"If its efficacy is confirmed in larger trials, this drug could be an important new option for patients not helped by currently available medications," Fava said.
Rates of side effects were similar between those taking the new drug and those on a placebo, the study authors said.
A larger trial of the drug is already underway.
Borenstein said that, "Although this is a small preliminary study, the results are promising and indicate that more work should be done."
Dr. Alan Manevitz is a clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He said "the novelty of this new potential medicine is that it targets creating new brain cells in a specific area of the brain named the hippocampus -- an area of the brain associated with learning and memory. Hippocampal loss of nerve cells has been shown to be associated with depression."
"This study is important because most of the 20-plus antidepressants available work on treating specific chemicals that work on the communication of emotions encoded in the brain," Manevitz added. However, "each one of these drugs only helps about a third of patients with major depressive disorder," he said.
If future clinical trials pan out, the new drug could be "an enhanced strategy and option for many patients not currently helped," Manevitz said.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about antidepressants.