Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213

  • Major Depressive Disorder


The Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh is conducting a research study to learn about the changes that occur in the brain when individuals suffer from and then are treated for depression. The NEMO study has two main purposes. The first is to provide medication treatment to individuals ages 60 and older who are currently depressed. The second part of the study involves completing a series of 4 MRIs, which assess changes in brain function over the course of treatment. This research may help investigators to develop faster and more effective treatment plans in the future, as brain responses that are detected early in treatment may predict how well an individual will respond to antidepressant medication.

Study summary:

In this competing renewal (Year 11) of the investigators' R01 which has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study late-life depression (LLD) pharmacotherapy (R01MH076079), the primary aim of this study is to characterize functional connectivity changes associated with initial medication exposure (12-hour challenge). Preliminary data suggests that these initial fMRI changes reflect monoaminergic engagement, regardless of monoaminergic class, and predict later treatment response. This study will test a neural systems level model that response in LLD is mediated by acute pharmacologically-induced changes in cognitive and affective large scale network. Depression in older adults is frequently disabling and is often resistant to first-line treatments, requiring more prolonged treatment trials than in younger adults, mainly due to its heterogeneous pathophysiology (e.g. vascular and degenerative brain changes). Currently, there is little neurobiological data to guide changing or augmenting antidepressant medications. Thus, there has been a heightened focus on tailoring treatment to optimize outcome as described in the 2015 National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) draft strategic plan (strategy 3.2). While antidepressant clinical response may take up to 8 weeks, recent studies suggest that physiologic changes, as measured with pharmacologic fMRI (phMRI) are seen within 12 hours of starting a new monoaminergic antidepressant (1). For this proposal, investigators focus on three major Cognitive and Affective Networks (CAN): the Default Mode Network (DMN), the Salience Network (SN) and the Executive Control Network (ECN). The proposed model suggests that monoaminergic engagement leads to core CAN changes, changes that subsequently are related to overall clinical response as well as response in specific symptom clusters such as negative bias, somatizations/anxiety and cognitive control. The same networks that are functionally connected while individuals are at rest, are also selectively engaged during tasks. Investigators' prior work shows that pharmacotherapy - regardless of type of antidepressant used - engages these specific networks at rest and during standard cognitive and affective tasks. Given the role of cerebrovascular disease in LLD treatment response, the moderating role of vascular burden on the proposed association between CAN engagement and treatment response will also be explored. The University of Pittsburgh will recruit 100 older adults with LLD that will be randomized to receive treatment with either a very specific serotonin reuptake inhibitor (escitalopram) or a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (levomilnacipran). A pair of fMRI scans one day apart will be used to measure functional connectivity (FC) associated with medication titration. Investigators will use a very early (12 hours after initiation of treatment) biomarker of treatment response, which, when validated, would decrease substantially the waiting time between medication changes. Additionally, this study will further increase knowledge of the acute neural system changes associated with monoaminergic antidepressants; this knowledge of mechanism is essential for both guiding LLD treatment research, and serving as an engagement target in LLD treatment research. Note: The original study design involved randomization to escitalopram or placebo (instead of escitalopram and levomilnacipran). Therefore a subset of participants will complete the study according to this design.


Inclusion Criteria: - Age greater than or equal to 60 years old - Current Major Depressive Episode or Current Depressive Disorder Not Otherwise Specified or Dysthymic Disorder - Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) greater than or equal to 12 - Modified Mini-Mental State (3MS) score greater than or equal to 84 - MoCA-BLIND greater than or equal to 13 Exclusion Criteria: - History of Mania or Psychosis - Current suicidal ideation that cannot be safely managed within the confines of a clinical trial - Alcohol or Substance Abuse (current or past 3 months) endorsed via phone screening interview or diagnosed by Structured Clinical Interview for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (SCID) - Dementia of any etiology endorsed via phone screening interview or diagnosed by SCID - Medical conditions with known significant effects on mood (e.g., stroke, current hypothyroid state) as well as unstable medical illness, including delirium, uncontrolled diabetes mellitus, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, or cardiovascular risk factors that are not under medical management Unwilling or clinically determined to be unable to taper from high doses of benzodiazepines (equivalent to > 2 mg lorazepam/day) or other anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medications at time of screening. However, for participants who are prescribed low dose psychotropics for pain, sleep disturbances, and/or medical conditions (e.g. amitriptyline for peripheral neuropathy, low dose trazodone as a sleep aid), these will be allowed in most circumstances. We will include participants on certain dosages of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants (for medical reasons) as follows: amitriptyline up to 50 mg/d, doxepin up to 50 mg/d, trazodone up to 100 mg/d, and imipramine up to 50 mg/d. Participants will also be able to continue taking buspirone, an antianxiety medication. As per the examples above, the PI will decide if the participants are eligible for the study and if they may continue the current medication. Justification regarding all decisions will be documented in the research record. - Inability to complete required assessments including brain MRI and blood draw - Hearing/vision impairment precluding neuropsychological testing - Difficulty conversing in English - Clinical contraindication to use of escitalopram or levomilnacipran or history of treatment resistance to escitalopram or levomilnacipran - Unable or unwilling to provide a secondary/emergency contact person - History of stroke with residual symptoms, current epilepsy, or current post-concussive symptoms - Clinically relevant hyponatremia (below 130 mEq/L) - Significant renal impairment



Primary Contact:

Principal Investigator
Howard J Aizenstein, MD, Ph.D.
Charles F. Reynolds III and Ellen G. Detlefsen Endowed Chair in Geriatric Psychiatry and Associate P

Rachel Berta, BA
Phone: 412-246-5685
Email: goodra@upmc.edu

Backup Contact:


Location Contact:

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213
United States

Rachel Berta, BA
Phone: 412-246-5685
Email: goodra@upmc.edu

Site Status: Recruiting

Data Source: ClinicalTrials.gov

Date Processed: June 28, 2022

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