PEI

Could ginseng help treat depression? A UPEI professor wants to find out

Dr. Andrew Tasker is getting a lot of money based on a hunch — the UPEI professor of neuropharmacology thinks ginseng might help make anti-depressants more effective.

'I don’t really know if this is going to work, but I think it’s worth finding out'

Dr. Andrew Tasker will test his theory about ginseng in his lab at UPEI. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Dr. Andrew Tasker is getting a lot of money based on a hunch — the UPEI professor of neuropharmacology thinks ginseng might help make anti-depressants more effective.

"[It's] an idea. That's all it is. There's no preliminary data," said Tasker, who's a professor in the biomedical science department of the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown. 

Tasker will be able to test his theory thanks to a grant of $30,000 over the next three years. UPEI announced Monday Tasker is one of two recipients of the Jeanne and J.-Louis Levesque professorships. 

'Gap in our understanding'

Tasker studies neurological diseases, including depression.

While there are many drugs used to treat depression, he explains that often the drugs don't have the effect they should. 

"Although the action of the drug should be almost immediate, they often take weeks, even months sometimes to become effective," said Tasker, adding a very high percentage of people don't respond to anti-depressants at all.

"So there's a gap in our understanding of depressive disorders and there's a gap in our ability to treat depressive disorders." 

Tasker had what he calls a "eureka moment" when he came up with his hypothesis: he thinks ginsenosides, the active ingredient in ginseng — used to treat depressive disorders for centuries in Asian medicine — could be used in western medicine to help treat depression. 

'New idea'

There have been scattered reports on the topic, Tasker said, and a bit of research looking at ginsenosides in relation to other neurological conditions, but "for the most part, it's a new idea." 

To test his theory, Tasker will conduct tests with rats that have been genetically modified to be prone to depression-like symptoms, observing them to see if using drugs in combination with ginsenosides alters the results. 

"I don't really know if this is going to work, but I think it's worth finding out," Tasker said. 

He's always optimistic when starting a new study, and said he has a consistent motivation for all of his research — to minimize human suffering.

The other recipient of the professorship is Travis Saunders, whose research will focus on how sedentary activity — specifically screen time — impacts health. 

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