St. Louis, Aug. 1, 2003 - Studying women with histories of clinical depression, investigators at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that the use of antidepressant drugs appears to protect a key brain structure often damaged by depression.
Previous research has shown that a region of the brain involved in learning and memory, called the hippocampus, is smaller in people who have been clinically depressed than in those who never have suffered a depressive episode. Now, researchers have found that this region is not quite as small in depressed patients who have taken antidepressant drugs.
The study, led by Yvette I. Sheline, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry, radiology and neurology, appears in the August issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. The hippocampus is a part of the brain's limbic system, a group of structures important to emotion and motivation. Using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Sheline's team measured hippocampal volumes in 38 women who had experienced an average of five episodes of major depression in their lifetimes. Only some of those episodes had been treated with antidepressant drugs.
"In addition to their brain scans, each woman was interviewed on two occasions by independent interviewers to determine how long each depressive episode lasted and how much, if any, of that episode was treated with antidepressants," Sheline says.
The team compared hippocampal volumes to the number of days on or off treatment. They found that on average, hippocampal volume was smaller than normal in depressed women, and that the less time a woman had spent taking antidepressants, the smaller her hippocampus. The amount of volume loss was predictable, based on the number of days depressed versus the number of days on antidepressant treatment.
"Our results suggest that if a woman takes antidepressants whenever she is depressed, depression would have less effect on the
Contact: Nicole Vines
Washington University School of Medicine