UCLA researchers have developed a noninvasive brain scan to determine if an individual may be susceptible to suicidal thoughts while taking an antidepressant medication.
While antidepressant medications have proven to be beneficial in helping people overcome major depression, it has long been known that a small subset of individuals taking these drugs can actually experience a worsening of mood, and even thoughts of suicide.
Aimee Hunter, an assistant research psychologist in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, and colleagues report that by using quantitative electroencephalographic (QEEG), a noninvasive measurement of electrical activity in the brain, they were able to observe a sharp reduction of activity in a specific brain region in individuals who proved susceptible to thoughts of suicide. The reduction was noticeable within 48 hours of the start of treatment.
The innovation is reported in the April edition of the peer-reviewed journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.
Prior research, Hunter said, has shown that between 8 and 14 percent of depressed patients develop thoughts of suicide while taking the most common antidepressants, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Although reports have suggested that SSRIs are to blame, no firm link between these drugs and thoughts of suicide has been established.
This study suggests, for the first time, a link between worsening suicidality and specific changes in brain function while on these medications.
The researchers treated 72 people suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD) with one of two SSRIs, fluoxetine (Prozac) or venlafaxine (Effexor), or with a placebo.
All were evaluated by a clinician using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, a standard instrument that assesses the severity of a wide range of depression symptoms. Of the 37 participants on medication, five (13.5 percent) had worsening thoughts of suicide.
All of the participants were also examined using QEEG, which evaluates brain function based on the brain’s electrical activity.
Among the 13.5 percent of participants who got worse, the researchers found a sharp drop in brain activity within 48 hours of the start of medication. The drop occurred in the midline and right-frontal sections of the brain, areas known to control emotions.
Of note, eight of the 35 participants taking a placebo (22.9 percent) also had increased thoughts of suicide. However, the placebo participants did not show the precipitous drop in brain activity within the first 48 hours.
“This is the first study to show a change in brain function after the start of medication that appears to be linked to the subsequent development of worsening thoughts of suicide during antidepressant treatment,” Hunter said.
“Importantly, changes in this biomarker did not predict worsening suicidal thoughts in the placebo-treated subjects, so the results suggest that the biomarker specifically detected medication-related worsening only.”
QEEG is a relatively inexpensive, noninvasive instrument; measurements are obtained by placing electrodes on the scalp.
As a result, Hunter said, further development of this biomarker could potentially lead to a tool to help clinicians predict early in the treatment process whether an individual suffering from depression will develop thoughts of suicide.