Transdiagnostic Biomarkers for Alcohol Use Disorder and Depression

Patients with alcohol use disorder (AUD) with or without depression may have lower peripheral levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and neural cell adhesion molecules (NCAMs) compared to those without AUD or mood disorders, according to a study in Frontiers Psychiatry. This finding suggests that BDNF and NCAM may act as transdiagnostic biomarkers for AUD and depression comorbidity.

Patients with AUD (n=22), AUD and comorbid depression (n=19), and healthy controls (n=20) were recruited to this cross-sectional study from a single research medical center in Russia. The researchers assessed depression and anxiety severity in all participants with the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAMD-17) and the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale. Patients completed self-report questionnaires, which examined the prevalence of anhedonia and alcohol use, as well as dependence, craving, and social adaptation.

Peripheral serum measurements of BDNF and cell adhesion molecule (CAM) concentrations were performed after participants underwent an overnight fast. The levels of these biomarkers were compared between groups in analyses adjusted for age and sex. Specifically, the study investigators examined the association between BDNF and CAM concentrations with symptoms severity scales.

Patients with AUD and a comorbid mood disorder had higher levels of depression and anxiety severity when compared to patients with only AUD (mean HAMD-17, 18.2±8.4 vs 7.6±5.0, respectively; P <.001). Compared to healthy controls, patients with AUD with and without comorbid depression had a lower mean serum BDNF level (4.069±0.33 vs 2.685±0.29 and 2.692±0.29 ng/ml, respectively; P =.009).

Additionally, the mean serum levels of NCAM were significantly lower in patients with AUD with and without comorbid depressive disorder compared to healthy controls (36.062±2.83 and 28.585±2.37 vs 38.198±2.62 ng/ml, respectively; P =.027). Being a woman was associated with higher levels of anhedonia (β = .12; P =.026). A multiple regression analysis found that BDNF, age, and sex explained the 21% variability in anhedonia levels.

Limitations of this pilot study included the small sample size, the significantly younger population in the healthy control group (P <.001), and the lack of a patient group consisting of those with a mood disorder alone.

The researchers wrote that considering “low BDNF levels were associated with self-reported anhedonia across conditions, future studies might further explore anhedonia as a transdiagnostic symptom in AUD and depression.”


Levchuk LA, Meeder EMG, Roschina OV, et al. Exploring brain derived neurotrophic factor and cell adhesion molecules as biomarkers for the transdiagnostic symptom anhedonia in alcohol use disorder and comorbid depression [published online April 20, 2020]. Front Psychiatry. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00296.