Structural brain abnormalities in major depressive disorder: a selective review of recent MRI studies

J Affect Disord. 2009 Sep;117(1-2):1-17. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2008.11.021. Epub 2009 Feb 23.


Background: While there is evidence to suggest that major depressive disorder (MDD) is associated with structural brain abnormalities, the precise nature of these abnormalities remains unclear.

Aims: To review recent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research findings in MDD while considering the potential influence of key clinical and demographic variables.

Method: A selective review of all T1-weighted structural MRI studies published between 2000 and 2007 in adult samples of MDD patients.

Results: Volumetric reductions of the hippocampus, basal ganglia and OFC and SGPFC are consistently found in MDD patients, with more persistent forms of MDD (e.g., multiple episodes or repeated relapses, longer illness duration) being associated with greater impact on regional brain volumes. Gender, medication, stage of illness, and family history all affect the nature of the findings in a regionally specific manner.

Limitations: Overall, differences between the samples in factors such as illness severity, medication, gender and family history of mental illness makes difficult to identify their confounding effects on the observed neuroanatomical changes. Also, the tracing protocols used for particular brain regions were different amongst the reviewed studies, making difficult to compare their findings.

Conclusions: The data support the notion that MDD involves pathological alterations of limbic and cortical structures, and that they are generally more apparent in patients with more severe or persistent forms of the illness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / pathology
  • Basal Ganglia / pathology
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / drug therapy
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / genetics
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / pathology*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / pathology
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / pathology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Sex Factors
  • Temporal Lobe / pathology