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Brain Scan May Detect Antidepressant Response

Brain Scan May Detect Antidepressant Response

New research suggests a brain scan can help predict which patients will respond positively to antidepressant therapy.

In the study, investigators at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the University of Michigan performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on patients with major depressive disorder who were to begin antidepressant therapy.

They discovered that patients who show more communication within two brain networks when they made a mistake while performing an assigned cognitive task were less likely to respond to antidepressant medication.

The two networks are the error detection network — which engages when someone notices they’ve made a mistake — and the interference processing network, which activates when deciding what information to focus on.

“We believe that increased cross-talk within these networks may reflect a propensity to ruminate on negative occurrences, such as mistake, or a deficit in emotional regulation when faced with a mistake, and our medications may be less effective in helping these types of patients,” said Natania Crane, a graduate student in psychiatry in the UIC College of Medicine who is first author on the study.

The study has been published in the journal Brain.

Experts explain that finding the right pharmacotherapy can take months to determine. This is because drugs used to treat major depressive disorder take eight to 12 weeks to have a noticeable impact on mood and other symptoms. Then, patients may not respond to the first drug prescribed or suffer side-effects, requiring a switch in medications.

Therefore, being able to predict a person’s response to depression medications could reduce the time it takes patients to begin feeling better and reduce health-care costs, said Dr. Scott Langenecker, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at UIC and corresponding author on the study.

Several studies that used fMRI to identify discrete areas of the brain that are hyperactive or underactive in patients with major depressive disorder have suggested that neuroimaging may be useful for predicting a patient’s response to a particular pharmaceutical therapy.

In the current study, the researchers looked at patterns of brain activation while participants performed a cognitive-control task to see if they predicted response to drug treatment.

Investigators used a unique analysis technique to determine which areas of the brain were highly active during the commission of errors on a cognitive task correlated with treatment response, and how the strength of communication within specific brain networks predicted treatment response.

Thirty-six adult patients with major depressive disorder who were not being treated with drugs at the time of the study were evaluated. Subjects had fMRI scans and took surveys regarding their depressive symptoms.

They were then assigned one of two antidepressants: escitalopram (Lexapro, a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, 22 participants) or duloxetine (Cymbalta, a serotonin-norepinepherine re-uptake inhibitor, 14 participants).

During the fMRI scan, participants were instructed to watch the letters X, Y, and Z flash across a screen. They were asked to press a button every time they saw a letter but not to press the button a second time if the same letter repeated.

The patients were followed up during and after 10 weeks of antidepressant therapy. They completed surveys and interviews to determine if the medication prescribed was lessening their symptoms.

Patients whose brain activity was stronger in the error detection network or the interference processing network were found less likely to experience an eventual reduction of their depressive symptoms on medication.

“Using our model, we were able to predict with a very high degree of accuracy — in fact 90 percent — which patients would respond well to antidepressant treatment, and which would not,” Langenecker said.

The researchers also found that participants who made more errors during the cognitive task were more likely to respond to antidepressant treatment.

“This is an important step toward individualized medicine for depression treatment. Using cognitive tests and fMRI, we can identify who will respond best to antidepressant therapy and who may need other effective therapies that work through different mechanisms, like psychotherapy,” Langenecker said.

Source: University of Illinois, Chicago

Brain Scan May Detect Antidepressant Response

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Brain Scan May Detect Antidepressant Response. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 26 Jan 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.