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Cognitive dysfunction and brain structural connectivity alterations have been observed in major depressive disorder (MDD). However, little is known about their interrelation. The present study follows a network approach to evaluate alterations in cognition-related brain structural networks.
Cognitive performance of n = 805 healthy and n = 679 acutely depressed or remitted individuals was assessed using 14 cognitive tests aggregated into cognitive factors. The structural connectome was reconstructed from structural and diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging. Associations between global connectivity strength and cognitive factors were established using linear regressions. Network-based statistics were applied to identify subnetworks of connections underlying these global-level associations. In exploratory analyses, effects of depression were assessed by evaluating remission status-related group differences in subnetwork-specific connectivity. Partial correlations were employed to directly test the complete triad of cognitive factors, depressive symptom severity, and subnetwork-specific connectivity strength.
All cognitive factors were associated with global connectivity strength. For each cognitive factor, network-based statistics identified a subnetwork of connections, revealing, for example, a subnetwork positively associated with processing speed. Within that subnetwork, acutely depressed patients showed significantly reduced connectivity strength compared to healthy controls. Moreover, connectivity strength in that subnetwork was associated to current depressive symptom severity independent of the previous disease course.
Our study is the first to identify cognition-related structural brain networks in MDD patients, thereby revealing associations between cognitive deficits, depressive symptoms, and reduced structural connectivity. This supports the hypothesis that structural connectome alterations may mediate the association of cognitive deficits and depression severity.
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.
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.
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