Study explains why a moody gut often accompanies depression

Summary: Mice with a genetic mutation linked to severe depression had impaired ability for neurons in the gut and brain to create serotonin. The reduction of serotonin in the gut led to a deterioration in the gut’s lining, slowing the movement of contents through the GI tract and resulting in constipation. However, treatment with 5-HTP increased neurogenesis in the gut, restoring normal function.

Source: Columbia University

For people with depression, gastrointestinal distress is a common additional burden, and a new study suggests that for some, the two conditions arise from the same glitch in neuron chemistry, low serotonin.

The study, conducted in mice, shows that a shortage of serotonin in the neurons of the gut can cause constipation, just as a serotonin shortage in the brain can lead to depression.

The study also found that a treatment that raises serotonin in the gut and the brain may alleviate both conditions.


Up to a third of people with depression have chronic constipation, and a few studies report that people with depression rate their accompanying bowel difficulties as one of the biggest factors reducing their quality of life.

Severe constipation can obstruct the GI tract and cause serious pain. The condition leads to 2.5 million physician visits and 100,000 hospitalizations each year.

Though some antidepressants are known to cause constipation, medication side effects do not explain all cases.

“Ultimately, many patients with depression are faced with limited treatment options and have to suffer with prominent GI dysfunction,” says study leader Kara Gross Margolis, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeon.


Similarities between the gut and the brain suggest the two conditions may also share a common cause.

“The gut is often called the body’s ‘second brain,'” says Margolis. “It contains more neurons than the spinal cord and uses many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the two conditions could be caused by the same process.”

Because low levels of serotonin in the brain have been linked to depression and serotonin is also used by neurons in the gut, the researchers studied mice to determine if a serotonin shortage also plays a role in constipation.

The mice used in the study carry a genetic mutation (linked to severe depression in people) that impairs the ability of neurons in the brain and the gut to make serotonin.


The serotonin shortage in the gut, the researchers found, reduced the number of neurons in the gut, led to a deterioration of the gut’s lining, and slowed the movement of contents through the GI tract.

“Basically, the mice were constipated,” Margolis says, “and they showed the same kind of GI changes we see in people with constipation.” (In previous studies, these same mice also showed depressive symptoms).

Encouragingly, an experimental drug treatment invented by two of the study’s co-authors, Marc Caron, PhD, and Jacob Jacobsen, PhD, of Duke University, raised serotonin levels in the gut’s neurons and alleviated constipation in the mice.

The treatment, a slow-release drug-delivery of 5-HTP, a precursor of serotonin, works in part by increasing the number of GI neurons in adult mice.


The discovery of this connection between a brain and a gastrointestinal disorder suggests that new 5-HTP slow-release therapies could treat related brain-gut conditions simultaneously.

The study is also one of the first to show that neurogenesis in the gut is possible and can correct abnormalities in the gut. “Though it’s been known for many years that neurogenesis occurs in certain parts of the brain, the idea that it occurs in the gut nervous system is relatively new,” Margolis says.

Neurogenesis may help treat other types of constipation. “We see a reduction of neurons in the GI tract with age, and that loss is thought to be a cause of constipation in the elderly,” Margolis says. “The idea that we may be able to use slow-release 5-HTP to treat conditions that require the development of new neurons in the gut may open a whole new avenue of treatment.”

This shows a person holding his tummy as if in  pain
Because low levels of serotonin in the brain have been linked to depression and serotonin is also used by neurons in the gut, the researchers studied mice to determine if a serotonin shortage also plays a role in constipation. The image is in the public domain.

An immediate-release version of 5-HTP is available as a supplement, but it has not been proved scientifically to work and physiologically it should not, as it is too short-acting, Margolis says. 5-HTP is the immediate precursor to serotonin. Once ingested, 5-HTP is converted to serotonin, but the serotonin is rapidly inactivated before it can work effectively.

The slow-release version of 5-HTP used in the current study produces constant administration of 5-HTP which has been demonstrated to remedy the limitations of currently available immediate-release 5-HTP.


Clinical studies are already planned for testing a slow-release 5-HTP drug in people with treatment-resistant depression.

Planning for testing a slow-release 5-HTP drug in constipation is in progress.

Funding: This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH grants DK093786, NS15547, MH79201, T35AG044303, NS102722, DE026806, and DK118971); U.S. Department of Defense (grants PR160365 and PR170507); AGA Student Research Fellowship Award; Lundbeck Foundation, and gifts from the Phyllis and Ivan Seidenberg Family Fund for Children’s Digestive Health and The Lennon Family.

Jacob Jacobsen and Marc Caron are inventors on US patents pertaining to slow-release 5-HTP and hold equity in Evecxia Therapeutics, a company founded to develop a slow-release 5-HTP drugs for the management of serotonin-related disorders. Kara Margolis, Jacob Jacobsen, and Marc Caron are inventors on a pending patent application for slow-release 5-HTP treatments for constipation disorders.

Additional authors: Narek Israelyan (Columbia University Irving Medical Center), Andrew Del Colle (CUIMC), Zhishan Li (CUIMC, Yeji Park (CUIMC), Albert Xing (CUIMC), Ruth Ann Luna (Baylor College of Medicine, Dane D. Jensen (CUIMC), Moneek Madra (CUIMC), Virginia Saurman (CUIMC), Ray Rahim (CUIMC), Rocco Latorre (CUIMC), Kimberly Law (CUIMC), William Carson (Duke University), and Nigel W. Bunnett (CUIMC).

Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences also supported the work.

About this neuroscience research article

Columbia University
Media Contacts:
Helen Garey – Columbia University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Effects of Serotonin and Slow-release 5-HTP on Gastrointestinal Motility in a Mouse Model of Depression”. Narek Israelyan, Andrew Del Colle, Zhishan Li, Yeji Park, Albert Xing, Jacob P.R. Jacobsen, Ruth Ann Luna, Dane D. Jensen, et al.
Gastroenterology 03 APR 2019 doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2019.04.022


Effects of Serotonin and Slow-release 5-HTP on Gastrointestinal Motility in a Mouse Model of Depression

Background & Aims
Mood disorders and constipation are often comorbid yet their shared etiologies have rarely been explored. The neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT) regulates central nervous system and enteric nervous system (ENS) development and long-term functions, including gastrointestinal (GI) motility and mood. Defects in neuron production of 5-HT might therefore result in brain and intestinal dysfunction. Tryptophan hydroxylase 2 (TPH2) is the rate-limiting enzyme in 5-HT biosynthesis. A variant of TPH2 that encodes the R441H substitution (TPH2-R441H) was identified in individuals with severe depression. We studied mice with an analogous mutation (TPH2-R439H), which results in a 60%–80% decrease in levels of 5-HT in central nervous system and behaviors associated with depression in humans. Feeding chow that contains 5-HTP slow release (5-HTP SR) to TPH2-R439H mice restores levels of 5-HT in the central nervous system and reduces depressive-like behaviors.

We compared the effects of feeding chow, with or without 5-HTP SR, to mice with the TPH2-R439H mutation and without this mutation (control mice). Myenteric and submucosal plexuses were isolated from all 4 groups of mice and immunocytochemistry was used to quantify total enteric neurons, serotonergic neurons, and 5-HT–dependent subsets of neurons. We performed calcium imaging experiments to evaluate responses of enteric neurons to tryptamine-evoked release of endogenous 5-HT. In live mice we measured total GI transit, gastric emptying, small intestinal transit, and propulsive colorectal motility. To measure colonic migrating motor complexes (CMMCs), we isolated colons and constructed spatiotemporal maps along the proximo-distal length to quantify the frequency, velocity, and length of CMMCs. We measured villus height, crypt perimeter, and relative densities of enterochromaffin and enteroendocrine cells in small intestinal tissue.

Levels of 5-HT were significantly lower in enteric neurons from TPH2-R439H mice than from control mice. TPH2-R439H mice had abnormalities in ENS development and ENS-mediated GI functions, including reduced motility and intestinal epithelial growth. Total GI transit and propulsive colorectal motility were slower in TPH2-R439H mice than controls and CMMCs were slower and less frequent. Villus height and crypt perimeter were significantly decreased in colon tissues from TPH2-R439H mice, compared with controls. Administration of 5-HTP SR to adult TPH2-R439H mice restored 5-HT to enteric neurons and reversed these abnormalities. Adult TPH2-R439H mice given oral 5-HTP SR had normalized numbers of enteric neurons, total GI transit, and colonic motility. Intestinal tissue from these mice had normal measures of CMMCs and enteric epithelial growth

In studies of TPH2-R439H mice, we found evidence for reduced release of 5-HT from enteric neurons that results in defects in ENS development and GI motility. Our findings indicate that neuron production of 5-HT links constipation with mood dysfunction. Administration of 5-HTP SR to mice restored 5-HT to the ENS and normalized GI motility and growth of the enteric epithelium. 5-HTP SR might be used to treat patients with intestinal dysfunction associated with low levels of 5-HT.

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