It has been suggested that stress provokes neuropathological changes and may thus contribute to the precipitation of affective disorders such as depression. Likewise, the pharmacological therapy of depression requires chronic treatment and is thought to induce a positive neuronal adaptation, presumably based on changes in gene transcription. The transcription factor cAMP-responsive element binding protein (CREB) and its binding site (CRE) have been suggested to play a major role in both the development of depression and antidepressive therapy.
To investigate the impact of stress and antidepressant treatment on CRE/CREB transcriptional activity, we generated a transgenic mouse line in which expression of the luciferase reporter gene is controlled by four copies of CRE. In this transgene, luciferase enzyme activity and protein were detected throughout the brain, e.g., in the hippocampal formation. Chronic social stress significantly increased (by 45 to 120%) CRE/CREB-driven gene expression measured as luciferase activity in several brain regions. This was also reflected by increased CREB-phosphorylation determined by immunoblotting. Treatment of the stressed mice with the antidepressant imipramine normalized luciferase expression to control levels in all brain regions and likewise reduced CREB-phosphorylation. In non-stressed animals, chronic (21 d) but not acute (24 h) treatment with imipramine (2×10 mg/kg/d) reduced luciferase expression in the hippocampus by 40–50%.
Our results emphasize a role of CREB in stress-regulated gene expression and support the view that the therapeutic actions of antidepressants are mediated via CRE/CREB-directed transcription.