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Arthur Labatt and his daughter Jacquie Labatt, Feb. 8, 2019.Marta Iwanek/ The Globe and Mail

Arthur Labatt has a personal interest in depression research. He once suffered from the mood disorder himself.

Although his experience with depression occurred nearly 50 years ago, Mr. Labatt says he will never forget the pain and distress he felt.

“It made me realize what a devastating situation depression or anxiety could be,” the 84-year-old businessman says. “So I … vowed that, going forward, I was going to be as supportive as I possibly could be.”

That’s part of the reason Mr. Labatt and his family have donated $20-million to the University of Toronto to create the Labatt Family Network for Research on the Biology of Depression , which is dedicated to studying the biological causes of depression, rather than focusing on new treatments.

“We don’t really know what the most important biological pathway is, but what we want to do is invest in exploring those,” says Dr. Trevor Young, dean of the faculty of medicine. “We don’t know is that a genetic focus, is that a neurochemical focus, is that a brain systems focus?”

The network, launched Friday, adds to a number of collaborative research initiatives that are trying to better understand the various causes and biological mechanisms involved in depression. The Canadian Biomarker Integration Network in Depression (CAN-BIND), for instance, is seeking to identify biological markers of depression to eventually help match individual patients with the right treatment. In the United State, the National Institute of Mental Health’s Research Domain Criteria encourages researchers to study the genes, molecules, brain circuits and behaviours involved in symptoms typically associated with various mental illnesses, including depression.

What makes this quest so challenging is that there are numerous factors that can result in depressed mood, says Dr. Boris Sakic, associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University.

The nervous system, the endocrine (or hormone system) and immune system all work together as a network, Dr. Sakic explains. He says anything that changes any one of these systems can disrupt the whole network and has the potential to affect one’s behaviour. Humans, however, have only a few behavioural responses to these types of disruptions: anxiety, impaired motivation or depressed mood, memory loss and dysfunctions in thought or perception, he says.

“We have a limited number of responses, however the number of these pathogenic factors is huge,” he says, noting these can include physical stressors, such as light deprivation, psychological stressors, such as verbal or physical abuse, or inflammation due to viruses, toxins or an autoimmune response. This is “why depression is so difficult to treat because there are so many things that you can treat in this network.”

Dr. Young says he is optimistic the new research network, which involves the University of Toronto, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the Hospital for Sick Children, will come up with new answers at a time when many pharmaceutical companies have “given up a lot of interest in discovering new treatments for depression.”

“We’re trying to fill in that gap and add to it,” he says.

Mr. Labatt, who co-founded the Trimark Financial Corp., says he believes he likely experienced anxiety in high school, though he did not know how to explain at the time why his heart would suddenly race. While living in Paris between 1968 and 1972, stress led him to seek help from a psychiatrist, who treated him for depression.

When he learned that U of T was exploring new initiatives in depression research through his daughter Jacquie Labatt, who is chair of the campaign cabinet for the department of psychiatry in the faculty of medicine, he wanted to offer support, he says.

“Scientists really feel like they have to understand what’s happening in the brain” of those who have depression, he says. “I’m just hopeful that within the next few decades, we’ll know a lot more.”

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