ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Brain wave patterns may predict how people with major depression respond to particular drugs. That's the finding of a new study. NPR's Jon Hamilton says it represents a small step toward personalizing care for the millions of people in the U.S. with depression.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Dr. Amit Etkin of Stanford University is trying to fix one of the biggest problems in psychiatry and psychology.
AMIT ETKIN: When a patient comes in, let's say, with depression, we have very little idea what the right treatment for them is.
HAMILTON: Etkin says there are lots of antidepressant drugs to choose from but no good way to pick the best one for a specific person.
ETKIN: Essentially, the medications are chosen by trial and error, often to limit side effects, and with minimal information about what might work for the patient.
HAMILTON: So Etkin and a team of researchers used a computer to analyze brain wave patterns in more than 300 patients diagnosed with major depression. Then they looked to see what happened when these same patients started treatment with the drug sertraline, which is sold under the brand name Zoloft. And Etkin says one pattern of electrical activity seemed to predict how well a patient would do.
ETKIN: If the person scores particularly high on that, the recommendation would be to get sertraline.
HAMILTON: Also, people whose brain waves showed they wouldn't do well with the drug were more likely to respond to a nondrug therapy called transcranial magnetic stimulation. Etkin says the results suggest depression treatment doesn't have to rely on trial and error.
ETKIN: By finding people who are particularly sensitive to an antidepressant, we can find those people for whom the drug is very effective.
HAMILTON: Etkin runs a Stanford-backed company that's trying to commercialize the approach, and he says most psychiatrists and psychologists already have the EEG equipment needed to collect brain wave data.
ETKIN: It's something that could be done very quickly and easily in any clinic. And then you can get your result by the time you leave the office
HAMILTON: Someday, perhaps. In the meantime, the study suggests that scientists are getting a little bit closer to understanding how to pick the best treatment for someone with depression.
Michele Ferrante is a program director at the National Institute of Mental Health, which provided some of the data used in the study.
MICHELE FERRANTE: We are certainly pushing in that direction, but it should be clear that, like, these are just the first promising effort in that space.
HAMILTON: Ferrante says next, scientists will need to show whether depression patients really are more likely to get better when treatment is decided by brain wave patterns. And he says future research will need to include more than a single drug.
FERRANTE: What we would like to have is models that can distinguish across multiple treatments.
HAMILTON: The new study was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.