Depression treatment can rewire human brain: Study

Those patients who respond well to this treatment show a greater increase in connectivity than those who do not, they said.
Representative image
Representative image

BERLIN: Depression treatments have the ability to rewire the human brain, according to a study that calls into question the belief that the structure of the adult brain is generally rigid.

Researchers at the University of Muenster in Germany have shown that in-patient treatment for depression can lead to an increase in brain connectivity.

Those patients who respond well to this treatment show a greater increase in connectivity than those who do not, they said.

The study, presented at the European College for Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in Vienna, Austria, calls into question the belief that the structure of the adult brain is generally rigid and incapable of rapid changes.

The researchers found that patients who responded well to anti-depression treatment, showed a greater increase in connectivity than those who did not.

''We found that treatment for depression changed the infrastructure of the brain, which goes against previous expectations,'' said study lead researcher Professor Jonathan Repple.

''Treated patients showed a greater number of connections than they had shown before treatment,'' Repple said.

The researchers studied 109 patients with serious depression and compared them with 55 healthy controls.

Their brains were scanned using an MRI scanner which had been set up to identify which parts of the brain were communicating with other parts, determining the level of connections within the brain.

The patients were then treated for depression, some with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), some with psychological therapy or medication, some with a combination of all therapies.

After treatment they were then rescanned and the number of connections recounted. They were also retested for symptoms of depression.

''Moreover, those who showed the most response to treatment had developed a greater the number of new connections than those who showed little response,'' Repple said.

''A second scan showing that there are no time effects in healthy controls supports our findings that we see something that is related to the disease and more importantly the treatment of this disease,'' said Repple.

''We don't have an explanation as to how these changes take place, or why they should happen with such different forms of treatment,'' he added.

The findings align very much with the current belief that the brain has much more flexibility in adaptation over time than was previously thought.

''This means that the brain structure of patients with serious clinical depression is not as fixed as we thought, and we can improve brain structure within a short time frame, around 6 weeks,'' said Eric Ruhe, from Rabdoud Medical Center, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

''We found that if this treatment leads to an increase in brain connectivity, it is also effective in tackling depression symptoms,'' said Ruhe, who was not involved in the study.

This gives hope to patients who believe nothing can change and they have to live with a disease forever, because it is 'set in stone' in their brain, Ruhe added.

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