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U. researchers study effects of creatine on teens dealing with depression

WEST VALLEY CITY — On a plaza outside of a Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, three teenagers with depression joined their peers to make a video about mental illness.

And for these teens, a new clinical trial that supplements their original treatments with creatine might just be the solution.

Bailey Luck, 15, says her illness goes way beyond a simplistic definition. "When you're happy, it's blue skies. There are no clouds. When you're sad, it's a cloudy day," Luck said. "But when you're depressed, there's no light at all. And that's the scary part."

The three talk together and laugh, but it's mostly on the outside. Inside, they say, the feeling always lingers.

"I might smile on the outside, but inside it hurts," said 13-year-old Aliya Bourdon.

Phoenix Renee Peterson, 16, describes her depression as sort of life's facade. "It almost feels like you're looking at life through a window," she said. "Everything is just distant and far away. I feel numb and cold."

The teens are participating in the National Alliance on Mental Illness project because as the finished video finds its way into schools throughout Utah, it offers hope to their peers who may be battling the same villain. And that hope is far-reaching.

For Bailey, Phoenix and Aliya, hope, as always, involves a proactive search for any and all therapies that might make them feel better. That's why they're intrigued with clinical trials now underway at the University of Utah Brain Institute. This latest study may be especially promising because in this case, the therapeutic tool is an amino acid called creatine. Our bodies make about half of what we need, while the rest comes from eating meat and fish.

Athletes have used it for decades as a supplement to increase muscle strength. But it appears the brain likes and needs the stuff as well.

Based on previous studies by other researchers overseas, adult women already on an antidepressant were given precise doses of creatine.

"The women who were given the creatine did better and actually, at the end of the study, most of them were fully remitted from their depression," said Dr. Douglas Kondo with the University of Utah Brain Institute.

Now in the second phase of their own studies in Utah, Kondo, Dr. Perry Renshaw and others are enrolling adolescent women between 12 and 21 who've had poor results taking traditional antidepressant drugs. They'll supplement their treatment with creatine to see if the combination helps their depression.

Part of those clinical trials include MRI scans at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute. Those scans measure what creatine is doing inside the brain.

"You have to show us, not just if you interview people who say (they're) less depressed, but that you are targeting, hitting and changing a physiological target in the brain," Kondo said.

That target is unique since the brain just might be able to do a better job combating depression when its energy reservoir is full. And creatine, just as it delivers energy to muscles, also delivers needed energy to the brain.

According to Kondo, "A really strong predictor of who is going to get better and to what extent is the phosphocreatine level in the brain."

There apparently is good evidence from previous studies of depression and bipolar disorders that inadequate energy metabolism is part of the disease.

"The higher your phosphocreatine level in your frontal lobe, the lower your depression score," said Kondo.

Though Bailey, Phoenix and Aliya are not participating in the clinical trials, they're watching and hoping the results from these latest Utah studies prove to be effective.

"If that could happen for me and all the people I know who are like me, that would be amazing," Bailey said.

To maintain scientific purity, the U.'s trials are double blinded — meaning some teens will get a placebo instead of creatine. But at the end of the trials, those who were on the placebo will get the creatine as well.

For more information on the Utah study, call the University of Utah Brain Institute at 385-228-3576

Email: eyeates@deseretnews.com