Context: Although differences in clinical characteristics exist between major depressive disorder (MDD) and bipolar disorder (BD), consistent structural brain abnormalities that distinguish the disorders have not been identified.
Objectives: To investigate structural brain changes in MDD using meta-analysis of primary studies; assess the effects of medication, demographic, and clinical variables; and compare the findings with those of a meta-analysis of studies on BD.
Data sources: The MEDLINE, EMBASE, and PsycINFO databases were searched for studies from January 1, 1980, to February 2, 2010.
Study selection: Two hundred twenty-five studies that used magnetic resonance imaging or x-ray computed tomography to compare brain structure in patients with MDD with that of controls were included in an online database, and 143 that measured common brain structures were selected for meta-analysis.
Data extraction: Twenty-five variables, including demographic and clinical data, were extracted from each study, when available. For the meta-analysis, mean structure size and standard deviation were extracted for continuous variables, and the proportion of patients and controls with an abnormality in brain structure was extracted for categorical variables.
Data synthesis: Compared with the structure of a healthy brain, MDD was associated with lateral ventricle enlargement; larger cerebrospinal fluid volume; and smaller volumes of the basal ganglia, thalamus, hippocampus, frontal lobe, orbitofrontal cortex, and gyrus rectus. Patients during depressive episodes had significantly smaller hippocampal volume than patients during remission. Compared with BD patients, those with MDD had reduced rates of deep white matter hyperintensities, increased corpus callosum cross-sectional area, and smaller hippocampus and basal ganglia. Both disorders were associated with increased lateral ventricle volume and increased rates of subcortical gray matter hyperintensities compared with healthy controls.
Conclusions: The meta-analyses revealed structural brain abnormalities in MDD that are distinct from those observed in BD. These findings may aid investigators attempting to discriminate mood disorders using structural magnetic resonance imaging data.