Neuroplasticity hypothesis of the mechanism of electroconvulsive therapy: a proton magnetic resonance and functional connectivity investigation
Song, Tian Yue
MetadataShow full item record
INTRODUCTION: Major depressive disorder (MDD) is characterized by ongoing feelings of guilt, sadness, and memory and cognition impairment. It is a multidimensional illness that affects many functionally integrated pathways of the brain. Understanding the underlying brain dysfunction that gives rise to this complex illness has been challenging, and by extension the search for appropriate treatments. MDD patients who are considered treatment resistant make up the primary population that receives electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Remarkably, ECT shows a 75% remission rate in this patient population and is considered the “gold standard” treatment for major depression. Although the exact mechanism of its function is unknown, it is well accepted that the induced grand-mal seizure confers its therapeutic effect. The seizure likely has broad effect that somehow corrects the underlying dysfunction in brain circuitry. Here, we specifically examined studies of functional connectivity and metabolite changes. METHODS: Through literature search, we examined six studies in functional connectivity and four studies in magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS). RESULTS: Functional Connectivity: Studies have found that after bilateral ECT treatments, patients with major depression showed reduction of functional connectivity (FC) from the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) to other cortical and limbic structures. Correlated activity between the superior frontal gyri, middle frontal gyri and angular gyri were significantly increased after ECT. Hyperdeactivation of the orbitofrontal cortex to negative emotional stimuli in patients was decreased, and it was associated with improvement in depressive symptoms. Regional activity in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) and functional connectivity between the sgACC and left hippocampus in treatment naïve patients after ECT were increased and correlated to reduction of depressive symptoms. Reduced connectivity between the amygdale and sgACC and increased connectivity between the amygdale and DLPFC was found by sequential assessments over a course of ECT treatments. Lastly, ECT increased the functional connectivity between DLPFC and the default mode network. MRS: Studies found decreased levels of glutamate or glx (glutamate/glutamine/ GABA) in patients in the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) compared to healthy controls. Additionally, it was found that glx levels increased after ECT treatments and that this increase was only in those who responded to treatment. Lastly, GABA level increased after ECT treatment in the occipital cortex. Discussion: Results from functional connectivity and brain metabolite studies in patients with major depression point to induced neuroplasticity as part of ECT’s therapeutic mechanism. Remodeling connectivity and mediating metabolite changes both will require modifications at the synaptic level. The wide spread changes seen in several different brain regions that have been implicated in depression further suggests that ECT’s effects are both highly specific and broad. CONCLUSION: Electroconvulsive therapy has consistently demonstrated impressive efficacy among the most severely depressed patients and is known to produce widely distributed effects in the brain. However, this also makes assessing its therapeutic mechanism challenging. Magnetic resonance imaging studies assessing functional connectivity and brain metabolite levels have demonstrated that ECT likely produces neuroplastic changes to remodel aberrant connectivity and dysfunctional excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission in cortical and limbic areas. Although these findings should be interpreted with caution, this field of research has provided an unprecedented opportunity to examine the living brain in great detail. Further studies with larger sample sizes and improved technical specifications will likely yield greater results.