Circulating tumour necrosis factor is highly correlated with brainstem serotonin transporter availability in humans.
Preclinical studies demonstrate that pro-inflammatory cytokines increase serotonin transporter availability and function, leading to depressive symptoms in rodent models. Herein we investigate associations between circulating inflammatory markers and brainstem serotonin transporter (5-HTT) availability in humans. We hypothesised that higher circulating inflammatory cytokine concentrations, particularly of tumour necrosis factor (TNF-α), would be associated with greater 5-HTT availability, and that TNF-α inhibition with etanercept (sTNFR:Fc) would in turn reduce 5-HTT availability. In 13 neurologically healthy adult women, plasma TNF-α correlated significantly with 5-HTT availability (rho=0.6; p=0.03) determined by [(123)I]-beta-CIT SPECT scanning. This association was replicated in an independent sample of 12 patients with psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis (rho=0.76; p=0.003). Indirect effects analysis, showed that there was a significant overlap in the variance explained by 5-HTT availability and TNF-α concentrations on BDI scores. Treatment with etanercept for 6-8weeks was associated with a significant reduction in 5-HTT availability (Z=2.09; p=0.03; r=0.6) consistent with a functional link. Our findings confirm an association between TNF-α and 5-HTT in both the basal physiological and pathological condition. Modulation of both TNF-α and 5-HTT by etanercept indicate the presence of a mechanistic pathway whereby circulating inflammatory cytokines are related to central nervous system substrates underlying major depression.