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Previous neuroimaging studies indicate abnormalities in cortico-limbic circuitry in mood disorder. Here we employ prospective longitudinal voxel-based morphometry to examine the trajectory of these abnormalities during early stages of illness development.
Unaffected individuals (16–25 years) at high and low familial risk of mood disorder underwent structural brain imaging on two occasions 2 years apart. Further clinical assessment was conducted 2 years after the second scan (time 3). Clinical outcome data at time 3 was used to categorize individuals: (i) healthy controls (‘low risk’, n = 48); (ii) high-risk individuals who remained well (HR well, n = 53); and (iii) high-risk individuals who developed a major depressive disorder (HR MDD, n = 30). Groups were compared using longitudinal voxel-based morphometry. We also examined whether progress to illness was associated with changes in other potential risk markers (personality traits, symptoms scores and baseline measures of childhood trauma), and whether any changes in brain structure could be indexed using these measures.
Significant decreases in right amygdala grey matter were found in HR MDD v. controls (p = 0.001) and v. HR well (p = 0.005). This structural change was not related to measures of childhood trauma, symptom severity or measures of sub-diagnostic anxiety, neuroticism or extraversion, although cross-sectionally these measures significantly differentiated the groups at baseline.
These longitudinal findings implicate structural amygdala changes in the neurobiology of mood disorder. They also provide a potential biomarker for risk stratification capturing additional information beyond clinically ascertained measures.
Abnormalities of emotion-related brain circuitry, including cortico-thalamic-limbic regions underpin core symptoms of bipolar disorder (BD) and major depressive disorder (MDD). It is unclear whether these abnormalities relate to symptoms of the disorder, are present in unaffected relatives, or whether they can predict future illness.
The Bipolar Family Study (BFS) is a prospective longitudinal study that has examined individuals at familial risk of mood disorder and healthy controls on three occasions, 2 years apart. The current study concerns imaging data from the second assessment; 51 controls and 81 high-risk (HR) individuals performing an emotional memory task. The latter group was divided into 61 HR individuals who were well, and 20 who met diagnostic criteria for MDD. At the time of the third assessment a further 11 HR individuals (from the Well group) had developed MDD. The current analyses focused on (i) differences between groups based on diagnostic status at the time of the scan, and (ii) predictors of future illness, comparing the 11 HR individuals who became unwell after the second scanning assessment to those who remained well.
All groups demonstrated typical emotional modulation of memory and associated brain activations. For analysis (i) the HR MDD group demonstrated increased thalamic activation v. HR Well. (ii) HR Well individuals who subsequently became ill showed increased activation of thalamus, insula and anterior cingulate compared to those who remained well.
These findings suggest evidence for specific changes related to the presence of illness and evidence that changes in brain function in cortico-thalamic-limbic regions precede clinical illness.
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