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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.
Neuroimaging traits of either familial or environmental risk for major depressive disorder (MDD) have been interpreted as possibly useful vulnerability markers. However, the simultaneous occurrence of familial and environmental risk might prove to be a major obstacle in the attempt of recent studies to confine the precise impact of each of these conditions on brain structure. Moreover, the exclusive use of group-level analyses does not permit prediction of individual illness risk which would be the basic requirement for the clinical application of imaging vulnerability markers. Hence, we aimed to distinguish between brain structural characteristics of familial predisposition and environmental stress by using both group- and individual-level analyses.
We investigated grey matter alterations between 20 healthy control subjects (HC) and 20 MDD patients; 16 healthy first-degree relatives of MDD patients (FH+) and 20 healthy subjects exposed to former childhood maltreatment (CM+) by using a combined VBM/pattern recognition approach.
We found similar grey matter reductions in the insula and the orbitofrontal cortex in patients and FH+ subjects and in the hippocampus in patients and CM+ subjects. No direct overlap in grey matter alterations was found between FH+ and CM+ subjects. Pattern classification successfully detected subjects at risk for the disease even by strictly focusing on morphological traits of MDD.
Familial and environmental risk factors for MDD are associated with differing morphometric anomalies. Pattern recognition might be a promising instrument in the search for and future application of vulnerability markers for MDD.
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