Depression is a major problem in the U.S., and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimate that around 15 million Americans are living with the condition. Finding the most effective antidepressant for patients can be difficult and time consuming. But in a new study, researchers at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA have found a way to use brain waves to quickly predict which individuals will respond favorably to Lexapro, a common medication for depression.

The team devised a way to use brain wave recordings from an electroencephalogram to predict how patients with depression would respond to treatment with escitalopram, sold under the brand name Lexapro. Escitalopram is a common antidepressant which works by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain. Although it can sometimes take months before the effects of an antidepressant are visible, the new technique was able to predict the drug's effectiveness after only one week of treatment.

“It can take well over a year to recover from depression. Our biomarker could greatly shorten the length of time — to as little as one week — that a patient has to wait to see if a drug is going to work,” explained study author Dr. Andrew Leuchter, in a recent statement.

For their study, the researchers analyzed data from 194 people, 18 to 70 years old, with major depressive disorder. The volunteers were split into three groups, two of which were treated with escitalopram for seven weeks, and a third group of 48 patients treated with a placebo. All of the patients were given an electroencephalogram before treatment, and a second one after one week of treatment.

After one week of taking escitalopram, the brain wave recordings of the people who eventually responded favorably to the treatment differed significantly from those who did not benefit. Using this data, the team were able to read which brain waves signalled future positive and negative responses to the drugs.

The team hopes the information can be used to help depression patients get the relief they need much faster, and plan to use to same method to test the effectiveness of other depression drugs and treatments.

Source: Leuchter AF, Hunter AM, Jain FA, Crump C, Cook IA. Escitalopram but not placebo modulates brain rhythmic oscillatory activity in the first week of treatment of major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research . 2016

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