A US national research trial initiated by UT Southwestern Medical Center has found that measuring electrical activity in the brain can help predict a patient’s response to antidepressant medications.

The study’s results have been announced in the middle of Mental Health Awareness Week. At least four more studies evaluating the effectiveness of other predictive tests are expected from the EMBARC trial. The study began back in 2012 and is considered to be a major US effort to establish biology-based, objective strategies to treat mood disorders.

Dr Madhukar Trivedi oversees EMBARC and is the founding Director of UT Southwestern’s Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care. He said: “When the results from these tests are combined, we hope to have up to 80% accuracy in predicting whether common antidepressants will work for a patient. This research is very likely to alter the mind-set of how depression should be diagnosed and treated.”

Trivedi organised EMBARC with several other academic centres after he led the world’s largest depression study and discovered shortcomings in patient care. The study also found that two thirds of patients do not adequately respond to their first prescribed antidepressant medication.

Trivedi aimed to improve this situation by spearheading the 16-week EMBARC trial at four US sites, involving more than 300 patients with major depressive disorder and evaluating them through brain imaging and various tests.

The project’s first published study looks at how electrical activity in the brain can indicate the likelihood of a patient benefiting from a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), the most common kind of antidepressant. Researchers used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure activity in the brain’s rostral anterior cingulate cortex and found that patients with higher activity were more likely to respond to the SSRI around two months after beginning treatment.

Trivedi said EEGs could be used in combination with brain imaging and blood tests to help patients who do not respond to SSRIs find effective treatments quicker.

He said: “I expect these studies will have a widespread effect on how we design and plan treatment approaches. My goal is to establish blood tests and brain imaging as standard strategies in the treatment of depression.”

Trivedi has also initiated other large research projects to further understand mood disorders. Among them is D2K, a study that will follow 2,000 patients with depression and bipolar disorders for 20 years.