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Brain Scans May Help Identify Who Would Benefit From Psychotherapy, Antidepressants


In terms of treating depression, there has been a longstanding debate amongst professionals over whether medication or talk therapy is the better treatment for this painful mental condition. Until now, there hasn’t been much evidence in hard science to determine which could work better for someone who’s diagnosed with depression. For the first time, a study from Emory University suggests that brain imaging could be used to determine who would benefit the most from what treatment. The study used PET scans to identify a biomarker that would help determine an effective course of action for people with depression on the first try.

The study from Emory University used a small sample population to try to identify a biomarker that could potentially identify which method an individual should try to treat their depression. They studied 63 adults between the ages of 18 and 60 who had been diagnosed with major depression, and randomly assigned participants to either twelve weeks of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) treatment or 12 weeks on Lexapro after all the participants underwent a PET scan (NIH, Szalavitz). Of the 63 participants, 38 people had clear responses to either treatment; while the study discarded the information of those who had partial responses (Shute, Szalavitz). What researchers found when they reviewed the PET scans in relation to the success rates of the treatments was the activity in the insula: the participants who benefitted clearly from psychotherapy had impaired activity in this area before treatment, whereas those who benefitted from Lexapro had elevated insula activity prior to treatment.

This study is an important breakthrough for scientists hoping to find a better way of treating depression, as well as for people looking for relief from this illness. 20% of adults will suffer from depression in their lifetime, but 40% of these people will not find relief from the first course of action that they try – often resulting in a lot of mental pain as well as fiscal strain on the individual (Szalavitz). This study suggests that there may be a scientific way of predetermining who will respond to medication better than psychotherapy or vice versa, based on a PET scan in this case. Additionally, this study opens the door for other studies to find other biomarkers that could lead to highly individualized treatment plans. It also helps to solidify the idea that as with any illness, there is no “one size fits all” effective treatment for depression.

Although the study from Emory University is a large breakthrough, it is also highly preliminary in nature. While PET scans can identify one biomarker, they are also expensive and sometimes difficult to find (Shute). On top of the cost, the other issue with this scan is that it may not predict who will benefit from neither treatment; or who may benefit from both. Some of the ways that these concerns are being addressed and studied is by looking at other brain scans, such as EEGs, as well as looking in the blood for differences in proteins, immune factors, genes, and growth factors (Shute). The ideal would be a simple, inexpensive test to determine which course of treatment to take, similarly to the tests used to determine the course of action in the case of a serious physical illness such as heart disease.

While these findings may be too early to use for practical application, they do provide insight into a potential way to find an effective way to treat depression earlier. Using the findings from this study, other studies may be able to develop a cheaper, more realistic method of identifying biomarkers that would assist in the treatment of depression. This is good news for both the medical community and for those who suffer from this, because it offers hope and a way to treat depression on an individual level.


Works Cited:

“Brain Scan May Predict Best Depression Treatment.” 24 June 2013. National Institutes of Health. Web. 3 July 2013.

Shute, Nancy. “Could Brain Scans Reveal The Right Treatment For Depression?” 13 June 2013. NPR. Web. 3 July 2013.

Szalavitz, Maia. “Talk Therapy or Antidepressant? A Brain Scan Predicts Which Works Best for Your Depression.” 17 June 2013. Healthland. Web. 3 July 2013.

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Written by

A native New Yorker, Bre loves the California scene and writing for Treatment4Addiction. She has been writing content for T4A for five months, and loves to learn new things, form opinions, and send them out to the world. Her interests include dance, singing, acting, talking with friends, being a daughter, and being the best big sister she can to her 16 year old brother. After attending ASU for a few months, she is interested in taking cosmetology classes and exploring her options. She looks forward to learning all she can, and doing something positive with that knowledge and experience.

Filed under: Conditions and Disorders, Research, Treatment · Tags: biomarker, depression, PET scans, study from Emory University is operated by Recovery Brands LLC, a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers, Inc.
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