Background: Amygdala hemodynamic responses to positive stimuli are attenuated in major depressive disorder (MDD), and normalize with remission. Real-time functional MRI neurofeedback (rtfMRI-nf) offers a non-invasive method to modulate this regional activity. We examined whether depressed participants can use rtfMRI-nf to enhance amygdala responses to positive autobiographical memories, and whether this ability alters symptom severity.
Methods: Unmedicated MDD subjects were assigned to receive rtfMRI-nf from either left amygdala (LA; experimental group, n = 14) or the horizontal segment of the intraparietal sulcus (HIPS; control group, n = 7) and instructed to contemplate happy autobiographical memories (AMs) to raise the level of a bar representing the hemodynamic signal from the target region to a target level. This 40s Happy condition alternated with 40s blocks of rest and counting backwards. A final Transfer run without neurofeedback information was included.
Results: Participants in the experimental group upregulated their amygdala responses during positive AM recall. Significant pre-post scan decreases in anxiety ratings and increases in happiness ratings were evident in the experimental versus control group. A whole brain analysis showed that during the transfer run, participants in the experimental group had increased activity compared to the control group in left superior temporal gyrus and temporal polar cortex, and right thalamus.
Conclusions: Using rtfMRI-nf from the left amygdala during recall of positive AMs, depressed subjects were able to self-regulate their amygdala response, resulting in improved mood. Results from this proof-of-concept study suggest that rtfMRI-nf training with positive AM recall holds potential as a novel therapeutic approach in the treatment of depression.