February 2013

New Depression Study Offers Hope for Toughest Cases

The need for improved treatment options for patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) is critical. Traditional antidepressants, which act on the brain's serotonin system, can take more than a month to kick in and don't work for up to 40 percent of people with major depression. Researchers have spent years trying to unlock the mystery of why some people respond to treatment and others don’t show improvement. At the same time, they are searching for a fast-working medicine to help people control their depression before it becomes debilitating. Now it seems that one research team has provided the key to both riddles. A new study from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides the scientific information needed for a new rapid-acting treatment for major depressive disorder and the method to predict which patients will respond to it. 

Maura Furey, a researcher at NIMH, first began studying the drug scopolamine (a popular treatment for seasickness) as a way to improve memory. When the public heard about her work, Furey says, she started getting phone calls, including one from a woman who had discovered the mood lifting benefits of the drug by accident. “She had gone on a boat with her sister and used a scopolamine patch for seasickness and noticed that her depression symptoms had lifted . . . then she reeled off all the prescriptions she had been given over the years that hadn’t helped her,” Furey says. It was a light bulb moment for Furey. Her research team started to recruit participants for a new trial that would look at scopolamine as a treatment for MDD cases that didn’t respond to the traditional antidepressant medications.

One of the people who signed up for the trial is Helene Najor, who lives in Bethesda, MD, with her family, a dog, a cat, and a parrot named Wilbur. The study team, led by Furey, gave her scopolamine once a week for three weeks. The first dose didn’t seem to make a difference, Najar says. But after the second one, she began to feel a change. “By the third, I was like a new person,” claims Najar.

And Najar says the effect is unlike any other drug she has taken. “There is no doubt in my mind that however it works or whatever receptors in the brain it works on, absolutely it has nailed exactly where my imbalance is,” she says.

The goal of the NIH experiments with scopolamine was to identify chemicals for the people who actually design drugs to develop an entirely new class of antidepressants, Furey says. And it worked. Several pharmaceutical development teams are now working on rapid-response antidepressants that work to help the brain increase communication between receptors immediately instead of creating new ones, a process that can take weeks. “The reason we’re excited,” Furey says, “is not only did people get better, they basically got better overnight or at least over a couple of days.”

But scopolamine didn’t work for everyone on the study. The research team went back to the drawing board to understand why. They had study participants look at pictures that evoked emotions while the research team used an fMRI to watch patterns of activities in the brain. According to Furey and her colleagues’ research, the level of increased activity in the left and right cortex of the brain predicted a participant’s responsiveness to the experimental drug. Preliminary evidence suggests that this simple fMRI test can be used to predict the success of other antidepressant treatments. If current research backs up this initial NIMH study, doctors will have a way to know which medication will work for a person before they prescribe it. In other words, Furey’s team may have just discovered the crystal ball for major depressive disorder treatment.

Read the study and watch this video interview with Furey on her research to learn more.

Remote Roundup

WeSearchTogether connects you to studies you can do from anywhere—no travel required! Check out the latest remote-participation studies:

Understanding Factors Involved in Self-Injury Among LGBTQ Individuals
Researchers want to hear about the experiences of LGBTQ individuals, whether or not they involve self-injury, as a way of helping to understand this important health issue among LGBTQ populations. Participants will complete a survey online, and information gathered from the survey will help researchers understand how to best support LGBTQ individuals.

Facebook Study
How does logging on to a social networking site affect your mental health? Researchers want to learn about the relationship between Facebook use, emotions, and behaviors in people with and without depression. Study participants will take part in interviews and surveys, and will give researchers access to their Facebook walls. Participants can receive up to $80 for their time.

Feelings in the Family Study
Researchers want to know how family members get along when a parent experiences depressive feelings. This study is looking for mothers who are experiencing depressive feelings and who have at least one child between the ages of 6 and 12. Participants will answer questionnaires by mail and be interviewed over the phone. They’ll be paid $25 for their time.

Romantic Relationships and Bipolar Disorder
Do romantic partners help you stay well while managing bipolar disorder or do they sometimes get in the way? Whether you’re single, dating, or married, this study invites you to share your relationship stories through an online survey. Your stories will shape tools for fostering supportive romantic relationships for others who are living with bipolar disorder. 

A Study of Internet Education and Social Support for Mothers with a Mental Illness
This study seeks to test the effectiveness of a program designed to support mothers with serious mental illness. Moms enrolled will complete online surveys, and some will participate in an online parenting course and email support group. Other moms will participate in an online course about healthy lifestyles.

An Internet Survey of People with Bipolar Disorder who Practice Yoga
Does yoga keep you fit and focused or do you topple over in downward dog? This study is interested in understanding both positive and negative experiences with yoga amongst individuals with bipolar disorder.

Social Center

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