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Major depressive disorder (MDD) has been associated with alterations in brain white matter (WM) microstructure. However, diffusion tensor imaging studies in biological relatives have presented contradicting results on WM alterations and their potential as biomarkers for vulnerability or resilience. To shed more light on associations between WM microstructure and resilience to familial risk, analyses including both healthy and depressed relatives of MDD patients are needed.
In a 2 (MDD v. healthy controls, HC) × 2 (familial risk yes v. no) design, we investigated fractional anisotropy (FA) via tract-based spatial statistics in a large well-characterised adult sample (N = 528), with additional controls for childhood maltreatment, a potentially confounding proxy for environmental risk.
Analyses revealed a significant main effect of diagnosis on FA in the forceps minor and the left superior longitudinal fasciculus (ptfce−FWE = 0.009). Furthermore, a significant interaction of diagnosis with familial risk emerged (ptfce−FWE = 0.036) Post-hoc pairwise comparisons showed significantly higher FA, mainly in the forceps minor and right inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus, in HC with as compared to HC without familial risk (ptfce−FWE < 0.001), whereas familial risk played no role in MDD patients (ptfce−FWE = 0.797). Adding childhood maltreatment as a covariate, the interaction effect remained stable.
We found widespread increased FA in HC with familial risk for MDD as compared to a HC low-risk sample. The significant effect of risk on FA was present only in HC, but not in the MDD sample. These alterations might reflect compensatory neural mechanisms in healthy adults at risk for MDD potentially associated with resilience.
Patients with bipolar disorder (BD) show reduced fractional anisotropy (FA) compared to patients with major depressive disorder (MDD). Little is known about whether these differences are mood state-independent or influenced by acute symptom severity. Therefore, the aim of this study was (1) to replicate abnormalities in white matter microstructure in BD v. MDD and (2) to investigate whether these vary across depressed, euthymic, and manic mood.
In this cross-sectional diffusion tensor imaging study, n = 136 patients with BD were compared to age- and sex-matched MDD patients and healthy controls (HC) (n = 136 each). Differences in FA were investigated using tract-based spatial statistics. Using interaction models, the influence of acute symptom severity and mood state on the differences between patient groups were tested.
Analyses revealed a main effect of diagnosis on FA across all three groups (ptfce-FWE = 0.003). BD patients showed reduced FA compared to both MDD (ptfce-FWE = 0.005) and HC (ptfce-FWE < 0.001) in large bilateral clusters. These consisted of several white matter tracts previously described in the literature, including commissural, association, and projection tracts. There were no significant interaction effects between diagnosis and symptom severity or mood state (all ptfce-FWE > 0.704).
Results indicated that the difference between BD and MDD was independent of depressive and manic symptom severity and mood state. Disruptions in white matter microstructure in BD might be a trait effect of the disorder. The potential of FA values to be used as a biomarker to differentiate BD from MDD should be further addressed in future studies using longitudinal designs.
Childhood maltreatment (CM) represents a potent risk factor for major depressive disorder (MDD), including poorer treatment response. Altered resting-state connectivity in the fronto-limbic system has been reported in maltreated individuals. However, previous results in smaller samples differ largely regarding localization and direction of effects.
We included healthy and depressed samples [n = 624 participants with MDD; n = 701 healthy control (HC) participants] that underwent resting-state functional MRI measurements and provided retrospective self-reports of maltreatment using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. A-priori defined regions of interest [ROI; amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)] were used to calculate seed-to-voxel connectivities.
No significant associations between maltreatment and resting-state connectivity of any ROI were found across MDD and HC participants and no interaction effect with diagnosis became significant. Investigating MDD patients only yielded maltreatment-associated increased connectivity between the amygdala and dorsolateral frontal areas [pFDR < 0.001; η2partial = 0.050; 95%-CI (0.023–0.085)]. This effect was robust across various sensitivity analyses and was associated with concurrent and previous symptom severity. Particularly strong amygdala-frontal associations with maltreatment were observed in acutely depressed individuals [n = 264; pFDR < 0.001; η2partial = 0.091; 95%-CI (0.038–0.166)). Weaker evidence – not surviving correction for multiple ROI analyses – was found for altered supracallosal ACC connectivity in HC individuals associated with maltreatment.
The majority of previous resting-state connectivity correlates of CM could not be replicated in this large-scale study. The strongest evidence was found for clinically relevant maltreatment associations with altered adult amygdala-dorsolateral frontal connectivity in depression. Future studies should explore the relevance of this pathway for a maltreated subgroup of MDD patients.
Studying phenotypic and genetic characteristics of age at onset (AAO) and polarity at onset (PAO) in bipolar disorder can provide new insights into disease pathology and facilitate the development of screening tools.
To examine the genetic architecture of AAO and PAO and their association with bipolar disorder disease characteristics.
Genome-wide association studies (GWASs) and polygenic score (PGS) analyses of AAO (n = 12 977) and PAO (n = 6773) were conducted in patients with bipolar disorder from 34 cohorts and a replication sample (n = 2237). The association of onset with disease characteristics was investigated in two of these cohorts.
Earlier AAO was associated with a higher probability of psychotic symptoms, suicidality, lower educational attainment, not living together and fewer episodes. Depressive onset correlated with suicidality and manic onset correlated with delusions and manic episodes. Systematic differences in AAO between cohorts and continents of origin were observed. This was also reflected in single-nucleotide variant-based heritability estimates, with higher heritabilities for stricter onset definitions. Increased PGS for autism spectrum disorder (β = −0.34 years, s.e. = 0.08), major depression (β = −0.34 years, s.e. = 0.08), schizophrenia (β = −0.39 years, s.e. = 0.08), and educational attainment (β = −0.31 years, s.e. = 0.08) were associated with an earlier AAO. The AAO GWAS identified one significant locus, but this finding did not replicate. Neither GWAS nor PGS analyses yielded significant associations with PAO.
AAO and PAO are associated with indicators of bipolar disorder severity. Individuals with an earlier onset show an increased polygenic liability for a broad spectrum of psychiatric traits. Systematic differences in AAO across cohorts, continents and phenotype definitions introduce significant heterogeneity, affecting analyses.
Two prominent risk factors for major depressive disorder (MDD) are childhood maltreatment (CM) and familial risk for MDD. Despite having these risk factors, there are individuals who maintain mental health, i.e. are resilient, whereas others develop MDD. It is unclear which brain morphological alterations are associated with this kind of resilience. Interaction analyses of risk and diagnosis status are needed that can account for complex adaptation processes, to identify neural correlates of resilience.
We analyzed brain structural data (3T magnetic resonance imaging) by means of voxel-based morphometry (CAT12 toolbox), using a 2 × 2 design, comparing four groups (N = 804) that differed in diagnosis (healthy v. MDD) and risk profiles (low-risk, i.e. absence of CM and familial risk v. high-risk, i.e. presence of both CM and familial risk). Using regions of interest (ROIs) from the literature, we conducted an interaction analysis of risk and diagnosis status.
Volume in the left middle frontal gyrus (MFG), part of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), was significantly higher in healthy high-risk individuals. There were no significant results for the bilateral superior frontal gyri, frontal poles, pars orbitalis of the inferior frontal gyri, and the right MFG.
The healthy high-risk group had significantly higher volumes in the left DLPFC compared to all other groups. The DLPFC is implicated in cognitive and emotional processes, and higher volume in this area might aid high-risk individuals in adaptive coping in order to maintain mental health. This increased volume might therefore constitute a neural correlate of resilience to MDD in high risk.
MRI-derived cortical folding measures are an indicator of largely genetically driven early developmental processes. However, the effects of genetic risk for major mental disorders on early brain development are not well understood.
We extracted cortical complexity values from structural MRI data of 580 healthy participants using the CAT12 toolbox. Polygenic risk scores (PRS) for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and cross-disorder (incorporating cumulative genetic risk for depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) were computed and used in separate general linear models with cortical complexity as the regressand. In brain regions that showed a significant association between polygenic risk for mental disorders and cortical complexity, volume of interest (VOI)/region of interest (ROI) analyses were conducted to investigate additional changes in their volume and cortical thickness.
The PRS for depression was associated with cortical complexity in the right orbitofrontal cortex (right hemisphere: p = 0.006). A subsequent VOI/ROI analysis showed no association between polygenic risk for depression and either grey matter volume or cortical thickness. We found no associations between cortical complexity and polygenic risk for either schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychiatric cross-disorder when correcting for multiple testing.
Changes in cortical complexity associated with polygenic risk for depression might facilitate well-established volume changes in orbitofrontal cortices in depression. Despite the absence of psychopathology, changed cortical complexity that parallels polygenic risk for depression might also change reward systems, which are also structurally affected in patients with depressive syndrome.
Previous case–control studies of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have identified altered brain structure such as altered frontal and temporal cortex volumes, or decreased fractional anisotropy (FA) within the inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus in patients. It remains unclear whether subclinical autistic-like traits might also be related to variation in these brain structures.
In this study, we analyzed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data of 250 psychiatrically healthy subjects phenotyped for subclinical autistic-like traits using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). For data analysis, we used voxel-based morphometry of T1-MRIs (Computational Anatomy Toolbox) and tract-based spatial statistics for diffusion tensor imaging data.
AQ attention switching subscale correlated negatively with FA values in the bilateral uncinate fasciculus as well as the bilateral inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus. Higher AQ attention switching subscale scores were associated with increased mean diffusivity and radial diffusivity values in the uncinate fasciculus, while axial diffusivity values within this tract show a negative correlation. AQ attention to detail subscale correlated positively with gray matter volume in the right pre- and postcentral gyrus.
We demonstrate that individuals with higher levels of autism-spectrum-like features show decreased white matter integrity in tracts associated with higher-level visual processing and increased cortical volume in areas linked to movement sequencing and working memory. Our results resemble regional brain structure alterations found in individuals with ASD. This offers opportunities to further understand the etiology and pathogenesis of the disorder and shows a subclinical continuum perspective.
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