Objective: To determine if a 12-week yoga intervention (YI) was associated with increased gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels and decreased depressive symptoms in participants with major depressive disorder (MDD). Methods: Subjects were randomized to a high-dose group (HDG) of three YIs a week and a low-dose group (LDG) of two YIs a week. Thalamic GABA levels were obtained using magnetic resonance spectroscopy at Scan-1 before randomization. After the assigned 12-week intervention, Scan-2 was obtained, immediately followed by a YI and Scan-3. Beck Depression Inventory II (BDI-II) scores were obtained before Scan-1 and Scan-3. Settings/Location: Screenings and interventions occurred at the Boston University Medical Center. Imaging occurred at McLean Hospital. Subjects: Subjects met criteria for MDD. Intervention: Ninety minutes of Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing at five breaths per minute plus homework. Outcome measures: GABA levels and the BDI-II. Results: BDI-II scores improved significantly in both groups. GABA levels from Scan-1 to Scan-3 and from Scan-2 to Scan-3 were significantly increased in the LDG (n = 15) and showed a trend in the total cohort. Post hoc, participants were divided into two groups based on having an increase in GABA levels at Scan-2. Increases in Scan-2 GABA levels were observed in participants whose mean time between their last YI and Scan-2 was 3.93 ± 2.92 standard deviation (SD) days, but not in those whose mean time between their last YI and Scan-2 was 7.83 ± 6.88 SD. Conclusions: This study tentatively supports the hypothesis that one of the mechanisms through which yoga improves mood is by increasing the activity of the GABA system. The observed increase in GABA levels following a YI that was no longer observed 8 days after a YI suggests that the associated increase in GABA after a YI is time limited such that at least one YI a week may be necessary to maintain the elevated GABA levels.
Keywords: GABA; MRS; anxiety; breathing; depression; progesterone; yoga.