St John's wort, hypericin, and imipramine: a comparative analysis of mRNA levels in brain areas involved in HPA axis control following short-term and long-term administration in normal and stressed rats.Mol Psychiatry 2001; 6(5):547-64MP
Clinical studies demonstrate that the antidepressant efficacy of St John's wort (Hypericum) is comparable to that of tricyclic antidepressants such as imipramine. Onset of efficacy of these drugs occurs after several weeks of treatment. Therefore, we used in situhybridization histochemistry to examine in rats the effects of short-term (2 weeks) and long-term (8 weeks) administration of imipramine, Hypericum extract, and hypericin (an active constituent of St John's wort) on the expression of genes that may be involved in the regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Imipramine (15 mg kg(-1)), Hypericum (500 mg kg(-1)), and hypericin (0.2 mg kg(-1)) given daily by gavage for 8 weeks but not for 2 weeks significantly decreased levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) mRNA by 16-22% in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN) and serotonin 5-HT(1A) receptor mRNA by 11-17% in the hippocampus. Only imipramine decreased tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) mRNA levels in the locus coeruleus (by 23%), and only at 8 weeks. The similar delayed effects of the three compounds on gene transcription suggests a shared action on the centers that control HPA axis activity. A second study was performed to assess the effects of long-term imipramine and Hypericum administration on stress-induced changes in gene transcription in stress-responsive circuits. Repeated immobilization stress (2 h daily for 7 days) increased mRNA levels of CRH in the PVN, proopiomelanocortin (POMC) in the anterior pituitary, glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD 65/67) in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BST), cyclic AMP response element binding protein (CREB) in the hippocampus, and TH in the locus coeruleus. It decreased mRNA levels of 5-HT(1A) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus. Long-term pre-treatment with either imipramine or Hypericum reduced to control levels the stress-induced increases in gene transcription of GAD in the BST, CREB in the hippocampus, and POMC in the pituitary. The stress-induced increases in mRNA levels of CRH in the PVN and TH in the locus coeruleus were reduced by imipramine but not by Hypericum. The stress-induced decreases in BDNF and 5-HT(1A)mRNA levels were not prevented by either drug. Taken together, these data show: (1) that Hypericum and hypericin have delayed effects on HPA axis control centers similar to those of imipramine; and (2) that select stress-induced changes in gene transcription in particular brain areas can be prevented by long-term treatment with either the prototypic tricyclic antidepressant imipramine or the herbiceutical St John's wort. However, imipramine appears to be more effective in blocking stress effects on the HPA axis than the plant extract.