Electroconvulsive therapy "corrects" the neural architecture of visuospatial memory: Implications for typical cognitive-affective functioning

Neuroimage Clin. 2019;23:101816. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2019.101816. Epub 2019 Apr 5.


Although electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a widely used and effective treatment for refractory depression, the neural underpinnings of its therapeutic effects remain poorly understood. To address this issue, here, we focused on a core cognitive deficit associated with depression, which tends to be reliably ameliorated through ECT, specifically, the ability to learn visuospatial information. Thus, we pursued three goals. First, we tested whether ECT can "normalize" the functional brain organization patterns associated with visuospatial memory and whether such corrections would predict post-ECT improvements in learning visuospatial information. Second, we investigated whether, among healthy individuals, stronger expression of the neural pattern, susceptible to adjustments through ECT, would predict reduced incidence of depression-relevant cognition and affect. Third, we sought to quantify the heritability of the ECT-correctable neural profile. Thus, in a task fMRI study with a clinical and a healthy comparison sample, we characterized two functional connectome patterns: one that typifies trait depression (i.e., differentiates patients from healthy individuals) and another that is susceptible to "normalization" through ECT. Both before and after ECT, greater expression of the trait depression neural profile was associated with more frequent repetitive thinking about past personal events (affective persistence), a hallmark of depressogenic cognition. Complementarily, post-treatment, stronger expression of the ECT-corrected neural profile was linked to improvements in visuospatial learning, a mental ability which is markedly impaired in depression. Subsequently, using data from the Human Connectome Project (HCP) (N = 333), we demonstrated that the functional brain organization of healthy participants with greater levels of subclinical depression and higher incidence of its associated cognitive deficits (affective persistence, impaired learning) shows greater similarity to the trait depression neural profile and reduced similarity to the ECT-correctable neural profile, as identified in the patient sample. These results tended to be specific to learning-relevant task contexts (working memory, perceptual relational processing). Genetic analyses based on HCP twin data (N = 128 pairs) suggested that, among healthy individuals, a functional brain organization similar to the one normalized by ECT in the patient sample is endogenous to cognitive contexts that require visuospatial processing that extends beyond the here-and-now. Broadly, the present findings supported our hypothesis that some of the therapeutic effects of ECT may be due to its correcting the expression of a naturally occurring pattern of functional brain organization that facilitates integration of internal and external cognition beyond the immediate present. Given their substantial susceptibility to both genetic and environmental effects, such mechanisms may be useful both for identifying at risk individuals and for monitoring progress of interventions targeting mood-related pathology.

Keywords: Autobiographical memory; Depression; Electroconvulsive therapy; Functional networks; Genes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition
  • Depressive Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology*
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Spatial Learning / physiology*
  • Spatial Memory / physiology*
  • Treatment Outcome