Your sleeping brainwaves could tell you if you need to switch antidepressants

  • An experimental study found that REM brainwaves could help predict treatment efficacy for depression
  • Instead of waiting four weeks to see if antidepressants are working, it could take only a week
  • It could be a game-changer for serious depression cases and alleviate prolonged suffering

If you or someone you know suffers from depression, you know how long and difficult the journey can be to achieve the right medication mix.

This might change with what could be a breakthrough study presented at this year's European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress. Scientists from the University of Basel have found a brain wave pattern in REM sleep that could help to better prescribe medication for depression.

"In real terms it means that patients, often in the depths of despair, might not need to wait weeks to see if their therapy is working before modifying their treatment," explains the study leader Dr Thorsten Mikoteit.

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Long periods of suffering

Normally depression sufferers are prescribed Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) to help rebalance their brain's neurotransmitters. It takes a while to see whether the dosage or type of SSRI has any effect, and around half of patients don't feel a difference in their first treatment round.

This can prolong depressive episodes as doctors try to find the right treatment for each individual.

By looking at brain waves while sleeping, doctors could predict within a week if treatment will actually work, instead of up to two months.

The study

The yet-to-be-peer-reviewed experimental study included 37 participants diagnosed with major depression who were prescribed antidepressants. The control group of 15 continued with their normal treatment, while 22 were in the care of a psychiatrist who could adapt their medication.

Both groups' brainwaves during REM sleep were monitored, and while the control group stuck to their initial prescription, the psychiatrist changed prescriptions based on the brainwaves of the rest.

After five weeks, 87.5% of the patients whose prescriptions had been adapted had an improved response, as opposed to just 20% of the control group.

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"This is a pilot study, but nevertheless it shows fairly significant improvements," says Mikoteit.

"We have been able to show that by predicting the non-response to antidepressants we were able to adapt the treatment strategy more or less immediately: this enables us to significantly shorten the average duration between the start of antidepressant treatment and response, which is vital, especially for seriously depressed patients."

Need to be replicated

The researchers say that the study needs to be replicated in a larger blinded study to confirm the findings, but they are optimistic that it will show similar results.

The monitoring of REM sleep could be difficult in practical applications and make the process more expensive, requiring more intensive care, but the researchers are looking at ways to streamline this. 

Despite the limitations of the study, it could prove a game-changer for patients at high risk of suicide by getting results much faster.

READ MORE | Depression, anxiety, PTSD may plague many Covid-19 survivors 

Image credit: Pexels

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