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Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a fast-acting intervention for major depressive disorder. Previous studies indicated neurotrophic effects following ECT that might contribute to changes in white matter brain structure. We investigated the influence of ECT in a non-randomized prospective study focusing on white matter changes over time.
Twenty-nine severely depressed patients receiving ECT in addition to inpatient treatment, 69 severely depressed patients with inpatient treatment (NON-ECT) and 52 healthy controls (HC) took part in a non-randomized prospective study. Participants were scanned twice, approximately 6 weeks apart, using diffusion tensor imaging, applying tract-based spatial statistics. Additional correlational analyses were conducted in the ECT subsample to investigate the effects of seizure duration and therapeutic response.
Mean diffusivity (MD) increased after ECT in the right hemisphere, which was an ECT-group-specific effect. Seizure duration was associated with decreased fractional anisotropy (FA) following ECT. Longitudinal changes in ECT were not associated with therapy response. However, within the ECT group only, baseline FA was positively and MD negatively associated with post-ECT symptomatology.
Our data suggest that ECT changes white matter integrity, possibly reflecting increased permeability of the blood–brain barrier, resulting in disturbed communication of fibers. Further, baseline diffusion metrics were associated with therapy response. Coherent fiber structure could be a prerequisite for a generalized seizure and inhibitory brain signaling necessary to successfully inhibit increased seizure activity.
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.
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