Ventromedial prefrontal cortex/anterior cingulate cortex Glx, glutamate, and GABA levels in medication-free major depressive disorder

Transl Psychiatry. 2021 Aug 5;11(1):419. doi: 10.1038/s41398-021-01541-1.


Glutamate (Glu) and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are implicated in the pathophysiology of major depressive disorder (MDD). GABA levels or GABAergic interneuron numbers are generally low in MDD, potentially disinhibiting Glu release. It is unclear whether Glu release or turnover is increased in depression. Conversely, a meta-analysis of prefrontal proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H MRS) studies in MDD finds low Glx (combination of glutamate and glutamine) in medicated MDD. We hypothesize that elevated Glx or Glu may be a marker of more severe, untreated MDD. We examined ventromedial prefrontal cortex/anterior cingulate cortex (vmPFC/ACC) Glx and glutamate levels using 1H MRS in 34 medication-free, symptomatic, chronically ill MDD patients and 32 healthy volunteers, and GABA levels in a subsample. Elevated Glx and Glu were observed in MDD compared with healthy volunteers, with the highest levels seen in males with MDD. vmPFC/ACC GABA was low in MDD. Higher Glx levels correlated with more severe depression and lower GABA. MDD severity and diagnosis were both linked to higher Glx in vmPFC/ACC. Low GABA in a subset of these patients is consistent with our hypothesized model of low GABA leading to glutamate disinhibition in MDD. This finding and model are consistent with our previously reported findings that the NMDAR-antagonist antidepressant effect is proportional to the reduction of vmPFC/ACC Glx or Glu levels.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Depressive Disorder, Major* / diagnostic imaging
  • Depressive Disorder, Major* / drug therapy
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Gyrus Cinguli / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid


  • Glutamic Acid
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid