Background: Although white-matter abnormalities have been reported in middle-aged patients with major depressive disorder (MDD), few data are available on treatment-resistant MDD and the influence of relevant variables related to clinical burden of illness is far from being well established.
Method: The present study examined white-matter microstructure in a sample of 52 patients with MDD in different stages (treatment-resistant/chronic MDD, n = 18; remitted-recurrent MDD, n = 15; first-episode MDD, n = 19) and 17 healthy controls, using diffusion tensor imaging with a tract-based spatial statistics approach. Groups were comparable in age and gender distribution, and results were corrected for familywise error (FWE) rate.
Results: Widespread significant reductions of fractional anisotropy (FA) - including the cingulum, corpus callosum, superior and inferior longitudinal fascicule - were evident in treatment-resistant/chronic MDD compared with first-episode MDD and controls (p < 0.05, FWE-corrected). Decreased FA was observed within the ventromedial prefrontal region in treatment-resistant/chronic MDD even when compared with the remitted-recurrent MDD group (p < 0.05, FWE-corrected). Longer duration of illness (β = -0.49, p = 0.04) and higher depression severity (at a trend level: β = -0.26, p = 0.06) predicted lower FA in linear multiple regression analysis at the whole-brain level. The number of previous episodes and severity of symptoms were significant predictors when focused on the ventromedial prefrontal area (β = -0.28, p = 0.04; and β = -0.29, p = 0.03, respectively). Medication effects were controlled for in the analyses and results remained unaltered.
Conclusions: Our findings support the notion that disruptions of white-matter microstructure, particularly in fronto-limbic networks, are associated with resistance to treatment and higher current and past burden of depression.