Novel study links brain stimulation, heart rate, and depression

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Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have uncovered intriguing connections between brain activity, heart rate, and depression, potentially paving the way for more accessible depression treatments.

Published in Nature Mental Health, the study conducted by Dr. Shan Siddiqi and his team, including lead author Eva Dijkstra, a Ph.D. candidate from the Netherlands, explores how transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) could be optimized to target specific brain areas linked to depression without necessarily using MRI scans.

The study’s inception was inspired by findings presented at a conference in Croatia, where Dutch researchers demonstrated the impact of TMS on heart rate.

Siddiqi’s team, based at the hospital’s Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics, used functional MRI scans from 14 participants without depression to identify regions of the brain previously associated with depression. They aimed to see whether stimulating these areas could affect heart rate.

By stimulating ten different spots in each participant’s brain, the researchers observed heart rate responses. Remarkably, in 12 out of the 14 participants, stimulating certain “connected” areas of the brain—those linked to depression—allowed for high accuracy in predicting the spots affecting heart rate.

This suggests that measuring heart rate changes during brain stimulation could help pinpoint effective areas for TMS treatment, thus personalizing and potentially simplifying the approach to treating depression.

Eva Dijkstra noted the study’s promise for making TMS therapy more individualized and accessible, as determining effective stimulation spots might not require an MRI. This finding is crucial because MRIs are expensive and not widely available globally.

Dr. Siddiqi also highlighted the broader implications of their findings, suggesting that this research could inform treatments useful not only to psychiatrists but also to cardiologists and emergency physicians.

However, he acknowledged the study’s limitations, including its small sample size and the fact that not all potential brain stimulation sites were tested.

The next steps for the research team include mapping brain regions where stimulation would yield consistent heart rate changes.

Meanwhile, Dijkstra’s colleagues in the Netherlands are expanding this research in a larger study involving 150 people with depression, including individuals with treatment-resistant forms.

Results from this extensive study, expected later this year, could bring these promising findings closer to practical clinical application, offering new hope for those battling depression.

If you care about depression, please read studies that vegetarian diet may increase your depression risk, and Vitamin D could help reduce depression symptoms.

For more information about health, please see recent studies that ultra-processed foods may make you feel depressed, and these antioxidants could help reduce the risk of dementia.

The research findings can be found in Nature Mental Health.

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