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Brain Imaging Improves Treatment for Depression

Laughter therapy class for seniors at the Clairmont Friendship Center in San Diego, California November 17, 2010.
Laughter therapy class for seniors at the Clairmont Friendship Center in San Diego, California November 17, 2010.
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From VOA Learning English, this is the Health Report.

Clinical depression is a serious medical condition. The word “clinical” is added to separate people who are depressed from those who simply feel sad because of life events. People with clinical depression can feel very sad, hopeless, and unimportant. Often they are unable to live in a normal way. Some people who suffer from depression kill themselves.

Clinical depression can be a difficult disease for medical professionals to diagnose, or identify. And it is difficult to treat -- what may work for one patient suffering from depression may not work for another.

Some experts estimate that medicine used to treat depression is effective in treating 80 to 90 percent of patients. But other studies suggest medication is not much better at reducing levels of clinical depression than a placebo. A placebo is an inactive substance given to patients who do not know it is not medicine.

Helen Mayberg is a researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She says the first treatment for depression often fails.

“The problem is that whatever you get, the published numbers, even in randomized studies, is getting people well -- the remission rate is about 40 percent, which means, for most people, the first thing you are given is not likely to work.”

That means doctors must try different methods of treatments until they find one that is effective.

But technology may change that. Ms. Mayberg leads a team of researchers at Emory University. They used brain imaging technology called P.E.T., or positron emission tomography to study treatment effects. The study involved 63 depressed patients.

P.E.T. uses a radioactive sugar molecule that follows brain activity. This sugar molecule “lights up” areas of the brain that become affected by stimuli. Two kinds of stimuli were used in the study -- medication or talk therapy.

The researchers found that one area of the brain -- called the anterior insula -- seemed to predict which treatment would work.

Patients with a slow-working anterior insula did best with cognitive talk therapy. Patients with a very busy anterior insula reacted well to medication -- a drug called Lexapro.

Ms. Mayberg says the anterior insula is part of a system in the brain that watches over the inner state of the body. The anterior insula is activated during times of extreme pain or suffering.

Ms. Mayberg says the insula may be a biological marker for depression. She says her team’s findings could help doctors treat psychiatric disorders in the same way they treat other medical conditions.

“…where we do tests of various sorts to make management decisions all the time. Whereas in breast cancer, we do tumor markers in order to determine both that a treatment is likely to help you but also determine without a marker that certain treatments are not for you.”

And that’s the Health Report from VOA Learning English.

I’m Anna Matteo.

This story was written in Special English by Anna Matteo from a report by VOA reporter Jessica Berman in Washington. It was edited by Christopher Cruise.


Words in the News

Depressionn. a serious medical condition in which a person feels very sad, hopeless, and unimportant and often is unable to live in a normal way

Diagnosev. to recognize (a disease, illness, etc.) by examining someone

Placebon. a harmless pill, medicine, or procedure prescribed more for the psychological benefit to the patient than for any physiological effect.

Therapyn. treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder.

Brain Imaging Helps Find the Right Treatment for a Person's Depression

Brain Imaging Helps Find the Right Treatment for a Person's Depression

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