Brain biomarker may help open door to personalized depression drugs

Back-of-the-brain view shows fMRI data superimposed on MRI scan data; level of increased activity in left and right visual cortex (blue) predicted depressed patients' responsiveness to scopolamine, an experimental antidepressant.--Courtesy of Maura Furey, Ph.D., NIMH

One of the biggest problems with antidepressants is their erratic efficacy, often forcing doctors and patients to shuffle through various medications before finding the right therapeutic. But now a group of investigators at the NIH say that they've found a neuroimaging biomarker at the back of the brain that could prove effective in personalizing drugs in the future--raising the odds of matching a patient with the best therapy.

"We have discovered a potential neuroimaging biomarker that may eventually help to personalize treatment selection by revealing brain-based differences between patients," explained Maura Furey, Ph.D., of NIH's National Institute of Mental Health.

Their work spotlighted the brain's acetylcholine system, which temporarily stores information in the brain. By modulating acetylcholine-induced activity in the visual cortex, the investigators could identify an imaging biomarker for a rapid response to scopolamine for depression. And after a working memory test the researchers said that they were able to track a highly significant 63% response rate to the therapy. 

Because of that, the investigators say that acetylcholine dysfunction may prove to be a reliable biomarker that could be applied to patients' ability to respond quickly to experimental drugs--something that could prove to be enormously valuable for researchers looking to avoid a drug-killing placebo response in a clinical study. Currently, investigators often mount multiple studies in order to gain compelling data on these therapies. 

- here's the press release