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Brain Behav Immun. 2018 Jan;67:59-64. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2017.08.024. Epub 2017 Sep 1.

Kynurenic acid is reduced in females and oral contraceptive users: Implications for depression.

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Department of Neurosurgery, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI, USA; Department of Cell Biology, Neurobiology and Anatomy, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI, USA.
Janssen Research & Development, LLC., of Johnson & Johnson, Inc., Titusville, NJ, USA.
Department of Surgery, University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, Tulsa, OK, USA; Department of Psychiatry, University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, Tulsa, OK, USA; Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy, Tulsa, OK, USA; Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, Tulsa, OK, USA.
Laureate Institute for Brain Research, Tulsa, OK, USA.
Department of Experimental Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Belgium.
Laureate Institute for Brain Research, Tulsa, OK, USA; College of Engineering, University of Oklahoma, Tulsa, OK, USA.
Division of Internal Medicine, Department of Symptom Research, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX, USA.
Laureate Institute for Brain Research, Tulsa, OK, USA; Oxley College of Health Sciences, The University of Tulsa, Tulsa, OK, USA. Electronic address:


The incidence of depression is approximately 2-fold greater in women than men but the biological mechanisms underlying this phenomenon remain unclear. One potential mechanism that has been understudied is immune function, which is modulated by sex hormones and differs considerably between males and females. The immune-regulating kynurenine pathway previously has been implicated in the pathogenesis of mood disorders. In particular, a decreased ratio of neuroprotective (kynurenic acid; KynA) to neurotoxic (3-hydroxykynurenine; 3HK and quinolinic acid; QA) kynurenine pathway metabolites has been reported in several mood disorder subtypes. Yet there is a paucity of research investigating sex differences in the kynurenine pathway in the context of depression. Similarly, oral contraceptive (OC) use has been shown to be a risk factor for depression but to our knowledge this epidemiological relationship has not been considered within the framework of immune dysfunction. Here, we compared the concentrations of c-reactive protein (CRP) and kynurenine pathway metabolites in a combined sample of subjects with major depressive disorder (MDD), bipolar disorder (BD), and healthy controls (HC) comprising 130 men and 350 women. CRP was measured in a CLIA-certified hospital laboratory. Kynurenine metabolites were quantified using high performance liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry. Estradiol and progesterone were quantified with the Mesoscale Discovery (MSD) platform. After controlling for diagnosis, age, sex, BMI, analysis batch, and self-reported childhood trauma we found that women had significantly lower KynA/3HK and KynA/QA ratios than men, and that these results were driven by a decrease in KynA. There was no significant difference between males and females in the concentration of CRP. Further, women taking OC showed significantly higher levels of CRP and lower ratios of KynA/3HK and KynA/QA compared with women on no form of contraception. Moreover, among women using OC, progesterone concentrations were positively correlated with KynA, KynA/3HK, and KynA/QA. Although preliminary, our results indicate that on average, healthy women show the same pattern of kynurenine pathway metabolism as that observed in subjects with depression. This finding raises the possibility that a reduction in KynA concentrations in women may constitute a vulnerability factor that partly explains the higher incidence of depression in females. Further, the significant association between OC use and reduced KynA as well as increased CRP, could conceivably partially account for the epidemiological association between OC use and depression. Nonetheless, because of the cross-sectional nature of this study, these hypotheses need to be more rigorously tested with longitudinal designs and/or large epidemiological studies.


Bipolar disorder; C-reactive protein; Depression; Estradiol; Inflammation; Kynurenic acid; Kynurenine pathway; Oral contraceptives; Progesterone; Sex differences

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