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Possible structural abnormality of the brainstem in unipolar depressive illness: a transcranial ultrasound and diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging study

Abstract

Background: Most empirically derived antidepressants increase monoamine levels. The nuclei of cells synthesising these monoamines are located in the brainstem, and projection tracts such as the medial forebrain bundle reach virtually all other brain areas. Two studies of unipolar depressive illness using transcranial ultrasound have reported reduced echogenicity of the brainstem midline in unipolar depressed patients. This may be consistent with disruption of white matter tracts, including the medial forebrain bundle, and it has been suggested that the effect of such disruption could be reversed by antidepressants.

Objective: To replicate these findings in a group of unipolar depressed patients and controls.

Methods: Fifteen unipolar depressed patients and 15 controls were studied using transcranial ultrasound imaging and diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging (DT-MRI).

Results: No difference in echogenicity of the brainstem midline of unipolar depressed patients was found. A possible trend (Cohen’s d = 0.39) in the direction of previous studies was found. Although the echogenicity of the brainstem midline of the control group was found to be similar to previous reports, there was no reduction in the patient group. Additionally, no structural abnormality of the brainstem was identified using DT-MRI.

Conclusions: While these data do not replicate the findings of previous studies reporting a significant reduction in the echogenicity of the brainstem midline in unipolar depressed patients, the ultrasound investigation indicated that there may be a trend in this direction. Given the importance of identifying the causes of depressive illness, it is important that other groups attempt similar studies.

  • BDI, Beck Depression Inventory
  • DT-MRI, diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging
  • DW, diffusion weighted
  • EP, echo planar
  • FA, fractional anisotropy
  • FDR, false discovery rate
  • FSE, fast spin echo
  • MNI, Montreal Neurological Institute
  • brainstem
  • diffusion tensor imaging
  • imaging
  • magnetic resonance imaging
  • transcranial
  • ultrasound

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