Magnetic resonance (MR) spectroscopic measurement of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in major depression before and after electroconvulsive therapy

Acta Neuropsychiatr. 2019 Feb;31(1):17-26. doi: 10.1017/neu.2018.22. Epub 2018 Aug 6.


Objective: Prior studies suggest that a dysregulation of the inhibitory neurotransmitter γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is involved in the pathophysiology of major depression. We aimed to elucidate changes in cortical GABA content in relation to depression and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS).

Methods: In total, 11 patients with major depression or depressive episode of bipolar disorder (mean pre-ECT Ham-17 of 26) and 11 healthy subjects were recruited. GABA was quantified using short-TE MRS in prefrontal and occipital cortex. Other neurometabolites such as glutathione (GSH), N-acetylaspartate (NAA) and glutamate (Glu) were secondary outcome measures.

Results: No significant differences in GABA/Cr levels were observed between patients at baseline and healthy subjects in prefrontal cortex, t(20)=0.089, p=0.93 or occipital cortex t(21)=0.37, p=0.72. All patients improved on Ham-17 (mean post-ECT Ham-17 of 9). No significant difference was found in GABA, Glu, glutamine, choline or GSH between pre- and post-ECT values. However, we observed a significant decrease in NAA levels following ECT t(22)=3.89, p=0.0038, and a significant correlation between the NAA decline and the number of ECT sessions p=0.035.

Conclusions: Our study does not support prior studies arguing for GABA as a key factor in the treatment effect of ECT on major depression. The reduction in NAA levels following ECT could be due to neuronal loss or a transient dysfunction in prefrontal cortex. As no long-term follow-up scan was performed, it is unknown whether NAA levels will normalise over time.

Keywords: GABA; depression; electroconvulsive therapy; magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aspartic Acid / analogs & derivatives*
  • Aspartic Acid / metabolism
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / diagnostic imaging
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / metabolism*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / physiopathology
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / therapy*
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy / methods*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occipital Lobe / diagnostic imaging
  • Occipital Lobe / metabolism*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Young Adult
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism*


  • Aspartic Acid
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid
  • N-acetylaspartate