Selective association of cytokine levels and kynurenine/tryptophan ratio with alterations in white matter microstructure in bipolar but not in unipolar depression

Published: 11 February 2022| Version 1 | DOI: 10.17632/tbd7tb4yt8.1
Stefano Comai,
Elisa Maria Teresa Melloni,
Cristina Lorenzi,
Irene Bollettini,
Benedetta Vai,
Raffaella Zanardi,
Cristina Colombo,
Flavia Valtorta,
Francesco Benedetti


Bipolar (BD) and major depression (MDD) disorders are severe mental illnesses characterised by altered levels of immune/inflammatory markers and disrupted white matter (WM) microstructure. A pro-inflammatory state was suggested to activate indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase which, in turn, increases the amount of tryptophan (Trp) converted into kynurenine (Kyn). We investigated whether plasma levels of Trp, Kyn and Kyn/Trp ratio are associated with peripheral levels of immune/inflammatory markers and whether they are related to WM integrity in 100 MDD and 66 BD patients. Patients also underwent MRI, and fractional anisotropy (FA) was estimated as a measure of WM microstructure. BD patients showed higher Kyn levels and Kyn/Trp ratio than MDD patients, and lower FA in several WM tracts, including the corpus callosum and the inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus (IFO). Lower Trp levels associated with a more severe depressive symptomatology irrespective of diagnosis and with lower FA in the corpus callosum (CC) and external capsule (EC). We found an association of immune/inflammatory markers with Kyn/Trp ratio selectively in BD patients: IL-1β and TNF-α showed a positive relationship and IL-2 and IL-9 a negative relationship; in addition, higher IL-4 correlated with lower Kyn levels; higher Kyn/Trp ratio and IL-1β correlated with lower FA in the CC and IFO. Notably, the detrimental effect of IL-1β on the IFO was moderated by the Kyn/Trp ratio. These data suggest that in BD, cytokines and the conversion of Trp into Kyn may affect WM microstructure and support the idea that distinct mechanisms underlie the pathophysiology of BD and MDD. DOI: 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2021.11.003



Ospedale San Raffaele


Depression, Inflammation, Serotonin, Brain Imaging