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Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is one of the most effective treatments for severe depression. However, little is known regarding brain functional processes mediating ECT effects.
In a non-randomized prospective study, functional magnetic resonance imaging data during the automatic processing of subliminally presented emotional faces were obtained twice, about 6 weeks apart, in patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) before and after treatment with ECT (ECT, n = 24). Additionally, a control sample of MDD patients treated solely with pharmacotherapy (MED, n = 23) and a healthy control sample (HC, n = 22) were obtained.
Before therapy, both patient groups equally showed elevated amygdala reactivity to sad faces compared with HC. After treatment, a decrease in amygdala activity to negative stimuli was discerned in both patient samples indicating a normalization of amygdala function, suggesting mechanisms potentially unspecific for ECT. Moreover, a decrease in amygdala activity to sad faces was associated with symptomatic improvements in the ECT sample (rspearman = −0.48, p = 0.044), and by tendency also for the MED sample (rspearman = −0.38, p = 0.098). However, we did not find any significant association between pre-treatment amygdala function to emotional stimuli and individual symptom improvement, neither for the ECT sample, nor for the MED sample.
In sum, the present study provides first results regarding functional changes in emotion processing due to ECT treatment using a longitudinal design, thus validating and extending our knowledge gained from previous treatment studies. A limitation was that ECT patients received concurrent medication treatment.