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New study identifies six subtypes of depression


Researchers at Stanford Medicine have identified six distinct subtypes of major depression, a discovery that could revolutionize treatment approaches. This breakthrough, published in Nature Medicine, offers hope for the 30% of people with depression who do not adequately respond to current treatments.

Key findings

  • Six subtypes of major depression have been identified.
  • About 30% of people with depression do not respond adequately to treatment.
  • The subtypes may help tailor treatments such as antidepressants and talk therapy.

The study involved 801 participants diagnosed with depression or anxiety. Using functional MRI (fMRI), researchers measured brain activity to identify six distinct activity patterns. Additionally, 250 participants were randomly assigned to receive one of three commonly used antidepressants or behavioral talk therapy.

Subtypes and treatment responses

  • People with overactivity in cognitive brain regions responded best to venlafaxine (Effexor).
  • Those with higher activity in three brain regions linked with depression and problem-solving benefited more from behavioral talk therapy.
  • Participants with lower activity in the brain circuit controlling attention were less likely to improve with talk therapy.

Dr. Leanne Williams, a senior author of the study, emphasized the significance of these findings. “We can identify specific types of major depression that have a root cause in specific brain regions and networks,” she said. This discovery paves the way for precision medicine in mental health, moving beyond the one-size-fits-all approach based solely on observed symptoms.

Implications for treatment-resistant depression

About 30% of people with major depressive disorder do not respond adequately to treatment. Current methods often involve trial and error, which can take months or years to find the right medication and dosage. The new study offers hope that brain imaging can help medical professionals better understand which treatment will work for each patient.

Dr. David Merrill, a geriatric psychiatrist, noted, “We do currently have ways, without fMRI scans, to help when making decisions for people with treatment-resistant depression.” Pharmacogenetics, the study of genetic causes of drug responses, can determine medication effectiveness, potential side effects, and required dosages.

Future research and applications

The researchers are expanding their work to connect brain imaging biotypes to digital and smartphone measures, potentially allowing for remote identification and monitoring. Dr. Williams highlighted the potential for brain scans to predict treatment responses, potentially doubling the number of patients who get better sooner.

Inspired by advances in cardiology, the team aims to use brain scans to reveal specific brain changes linked to depression, similar to how heart conditions are diagnosed through imaging. This approach could transform how depression is treated, offering a more personalized and effective path to recovery.