Intrinsic Connectivity Networks of Glutamate-Mediated Antidepressant Response: A Neuroimaging Review

Front Psychiatry. 2022 May 26;13:864902. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2022.864902. eCollection 2022.


Conventional monoamine-based pharmacotherapy, considered the first-line treatment for major depressive disorder (MDD), has several challenges, including high rates of non-response. To address these challenges, preclinical and clinical studies have sought to characterize antidepressant response through monoamine-independent mechanisms. One striking example is glutamate, the brain's foremost excitatory neurotransmitter: since the 1990s, studies have consistently reported altered levels of glutamate in MDD, as well as antidepressant effects following molecular targeting of glutamatergic receptors. Therapeutically, this has led to advances in the discovery, testing, and clinical application of a wide array of glutamatergic agents, particularly ketamine. Notably, ketamine has been demonstrated to rapidly improve mood symptoms, unlike monoamine-based interventions, and the neurobiological basis behind this rapid antidepressant response is under active investigation. Advances in brain imaging techniques, including functional magnetic resonance imaging, magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and positron emission tomography, enable the identification of the brain network-based characteristics distinguishing rapid glutamatergic modulation from the effect of slow-acting conventional monoamine-based pharmacology. Here, we review brain imaging studies that examine brain connectivity features associated with rapid antidepressant response in MDD patients treated with glutamatergic pharmacotherapies in contrast with patients treated with slow-acting monoamine-based treatments. Trends in recent brain imaging literature suggest that the activity of brain regions is organized into coherent functionally distinct networks, termed intrinsic connectivity networks (ICNs). We provide an overview of major ICNs implicated in depression and explore how treatment response following glutamatergic modulation alters functional connectivity of limbic, cognitive, and executive nodes within ICNs, with well-characterized anti-anhedonic effects and the enhancement of "top-down" executive control. Alterations within and between the core ICNs could potentially exert downstream effects on the nodes within other brain networks of relevance to MDD that are structurally and functionally interconnected through glutamatergic synapses. Understanding similarities and differences in brain ICNs features underlying treatment response will positively impact the trajectory and outcomes for adults suffering from MDD and will facilitate the development of biomarkers to enable glutamate-based precision therapeutics.

Keywords: antidepressive agents; biomarkers; connectome; functional neuroimaging; glutamate; intrinsic connectivity networks; ketamine; major depressive disorder.

Publication types

  • Review