Sufferers of depression may soon benefit from a new treatment that has been shown to speed up recovery. Using the new technique, termed fMRI neurofeedback training, patients showed a 40% improvement in the symptoms of depression – based on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) – 12 weeks after treatment.
The new technique was developed by researchers at De Montford University in Leicester in collaboration with researchers at Cardiff University. fMRI neurofeedback training is a non-invasive technique in which brain activity is monitored in real-time using an fMRI scan with patients shown how to increase brain activity.
The trial was conducted on 43 patients suffering from mild to moderate depression who were being medicated with the patients split into two separate groups. One group had fMRI scans performed on the emotional processing areas of the brain with the second group having fMRI scans performed on the section of the brain involved in visualizing faces and places.
Patients were shown the scans of brain activity and were trained in strategies to increase brain activity in specific areas. The patients were able to see on the fMRI scans how brain activity in the targeted areas was increasing, providing important feedback that the strategies were working. Patients were shown to be able to upregulate activity in specific brain areas and after 12 weeks, noticeable improvements were observed in the symptoms of depression.
While the researchers expected to see significant differences in the symptoms of depressions between the two groups. The group working on the areas of the brain involved in emotional processing were expected to perform better. However, there was no significant difference between the two groups. Both saw improvements of around 40%. The improvements in symptoms lasted until the follow up at 18 weeks.
“Our research has found that training the areas of the brain responsible for emotional processing and also for visualising places and faces could have some therapeutic effect on depression,” said DMU lecturer Dr Moses Sokunbi. “Through strategies such as mental imagery the patients were able to boost the signal in the parts of the brain that are responsible for depression and they could immediately see a significant improvement.”
While all patients involved in the study were on medication for depression, it is hoped that fMRI neurofeedback training could be used as a treatment for depression without medications in the future.
The study – Targeting the affective brain—a randomized controlled trial of real-time fMRI neurofeedback in patients with depression – was recently published in the journal Nature.