Brain regulation of emotional conflict predicts antidepressant treatment response for depression

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The efficacy of antidepressant treatment for depression is controversial due to the only modest superiority demonstrated over placebo. However, neurobiological heterogeneity within depression may limit overall antidepressant efficacy. We sought to identify a neurobiological phenotype responsive to antidepressant treatment by testing pretreatment brain activation during response to, and regulation of, emotional conflict as a moderator of the clinical benefit of the antidepressant sertraline versus placebo. Using neuroimaging data from a large randomized controlled trial, we found widespread moderation of clinical benefits by brain activity during regulation of emotional conflict, in which greater downregulation of conflict-responsive regions predicted better sertraline outcomes. Treatment-predictive machine learning using brain metrics outperformed a model trained on clinical and demographic variables. Our findings demonstrate that antidepressant response is predicted by brain activity underlying a key self-regulatory emotional capacity. Leveraging brain-based measures in psychiatry will forge a path toward better treatment personalization, refined mechanistic insights and improved outcomes.

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Fig. 1: Response across all patients to sertraline (n = 122) versus placebo (n = 129) independent of emotional conflict task brain activation.
Fig. 2: Moderation by emotional-conflict-regulation-related brain activity of the antidepressant effect of sertraline (n = 122) vs placebo (n = 129).

a, Photo by Nick Huizinga on Unsplash

Fig. 3: Decomposing emotional-conflict-regulation-related brain activity moderation of the antidepressant effect of sertraline (n = 122) vs placebo (n = 129).
Fig. 4: Overlap of treatment-moderating conflict-regulation-related brain activation, task-dependent brain activation and brain–behaviour relationships.
Fig. 5: Machine learning selectively predicts response to sertraline (n = 122) with conflict-regulation-related fMRI activity.

Data availability

All data are publicly available through the NIMH Data Archive (

Code availability

Custom code that supports the findings of this study is available in the Supplementary Software section.


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The EMBARC study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health under award numbers U01MH092221 (M.H.T.) and U01MH092250 (P.J.M., M.M.W.). This work was also funded in part by the Hersh Foundation (M.H.T., principal investigator). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

G.A.F. contributed the analysis and interpretation of the data and the drafting and revision of the manuscript. A.E. contributed to the design of the study, the analysis and interpretation of the data, and the drafting and revision of the manuscript. Y.Z. contributed to the analysis and interpretation of the data and the drafting and revision of the manuscript. W.W. contributed to the analysis and interpretation of the data. C.C., C.C.F., M.K.J. and J.T. contributed to the conduct of the study, analysis and interpretation of the data, and revision of the manuscript. T.D., P.A., M.M., P.J.M. and M.F. contributed to the design and conduct of the study. M.M.W. contributed to the design and conduct of the study, and revision of the manuscript. M.H.T. was the study PI and contributed to study design and funding, conduct of the study, analysis and interpretation of the data, and the drafting and revision of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Amit Etkin.

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Competing interests

A.E. (lifetime disclosure) holds equity in Mindstrong Health and Akili Interactive for unrelated work, has received research funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, Department of Veterans Affairs, Cohen Veterans Bioscience, Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation, Dana Foundation, Brain Resource Inc, and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, and consulted for Cervel, Takaeda, Posit Science, Acadia, Otsuka, Lundbeck and Janssen. G.A.F. received research support from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs. T.D.’s research has been funded by NIH, NIMH, NARSAD, TSA, IOCDF, Tufts University, DBDAT and Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, he has received honoraria, consultation fees and/or royalties from the MGH Psychiatry Academy, BrainCells Inc., Clintara, LLC, Inc., Systems Research and Applications Corporation, Boston University, the Catalan Agency for Health Technology Assessment and Research, the National Association of Social Workers Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Medical Society, Tufts University, NIDA, NIMH, Oxford University Press, Guilford Press and Rutledge. He has also participated in research funded by DARPA, NIH, NIA, AHRQ, PCORI, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, The Forest Research Institute, Shire Development Inc., Medtronic, Cyberonics, Northstar, and Takeda. P.J.M. has received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene (New York State), Forest Research Laboratories, Sunovion Pharmaceuticals, and Naurex Pharmaceuticals (now Allergan). In the past two years, M.M.W. received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), the Sackler Foundation, the Templeton Foundation; and receives royalties from the Oxford University Press, Perseus Press, the American Psychiatric Association Press, and MultiHealth Systems. M.F. has received research support from Abbot Laboratories; Alkermes, Inc.; American Cyanamid; Aspect Medical Systems; AstraZeneca; Avanir Pharmaceuticals; BioResearch; BrainCells Inc.; Bristol-Myers Squibb; CeNeRx BioPharma; Cephalon; Clintara, LLC; Cerecor; Covance; Covidien; Eli Lilly and Company; EnVivo Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Euthymics Bioscience, Inc.; Forest Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Ganeden Biotech, Inc.; GlaxoSmithKline; Harvard Clinical Research Institute; Hoffman-LaRoche; Icon Clinical Research; i3 Innovus/Ingenix; Janssen R&D, LLC; Jed Foundation; Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development; Lichtwer Pharma GmbH; Lorex Pharmaceuticals; Lundbeck Inc.; MedAvante; Methylation Sciences Inc.; National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia & Depression (NARSAD); National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM); National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA); National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); Neuralstem, Inc.; Novartis AG; Organon Pharmaceuticals; PamLab, LLC.; Pfizer Inc.; Pharmacia-Upjohn; Pharmaceutical Research Associates., Inc.; Pharmavite® LLC; PharmoRx Therapeutics; Photothera; Reckitt Benckiser; Roche Pharmaceuticals; RCT Logic, LLC (formerly Clinical Trials Solutions, LLC); Sanofi-Aventis US LLC; Shire; Solvay Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Stanley Medical Research Institute (SMRI); Synthelabo; Tal Medical; Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories; he has served as advisor or consultant to Abbott Laboratories; Acadia; Affectis Pharmaceuticals AG; Alkermes, Inc.; Amarin Pharma Inc.; Aspect Medical Systems; AstraZeneca; Auspex Pharmaceuticals; Avanir Pharmaceuticals; AXSOME Therapeutics; Bayer AG; Best Practice Project Management, Inc.; Biogen; BioMarin Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Biovail Corporation; BrainCells Inc; Bristol- Myers Squibb; CeNeRx BioPharma; Cephalon, Inc.; Cerecor; CNS Response, Inc.; Compellis Pharmaceuticals; Cypress Pharmaceutical, Inc.; DiagnoSearch Life Sciences (P) Ltd.; Dinippon Sumitomo Pharma Co. Inc.; Dov Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Edgemont Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Eisai Inc.; Eli Lilly and Company; EnVivo Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; ePharmaSolutions; EPIX Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Euthymics Bioscience, Inc.; Fabre-Kramer Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Forest Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Forum Pharmaceuticals; GenOmind, LLC; GlaxoSmithKline; Grunenthal GmbH; i3 Innovus/Ingenis; Intracellular; Janssen Pharmaceutica; Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development, LLC; Knoll Pharmaceuticals Corp.; Labopharm Inc.; Lorex Pharmaceuticals; Lundbeck Inc.; MedAvante, Inc.; Merck & Co., Inc.; MSI Methylation Sciences, Inc.; Naurex, Inc.; Nestle Health Sciences; Neuralstem, Inc.; Neuronetics, Inc.; NextWave Pharmaceuticals; Novartis AG; Nutrition 21; Orexigen Therapeutics, Inc.; Organon Pharmaceuticals; Osmotica; Otsuka Pharmaceuticals; Pamlab, LLC.; Pfizer Inc.; PharmaStar; Pharmavite LLC.; PharmoRx Therapeutics; Precision Human Biolaboratory; Prexa Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Puretech Ventures; PsychoGenics; Psylin Neurosciences, Inc.; RCT Logic, LLC Formerly Clinical Trials Solutions, LLC; Rexahn Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Ridge Diagnostics, Inc.; Roche; Sanofi-Aventis US LLC.; Sepracor Inc.; Servier Laboratories; Schering-Plough Corporation; Solvay Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Somaxon Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Somerset Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Sunovion Pharmaceuticals; Supernus Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Synthelabo; Taisho Pharmaceutical; Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited; Tal Medical, Inc.; Tetragenex Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; TransForm Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Transcept Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Vanda Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; VistaGen; he has received speaking or publishing fees from Adamed, Co; Advanced Meeting Partners; American Psychiatric Association; American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology; AstraZeneca; Belvoir Media Group; Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH; Bristol-Myers Squibb; Cephalon, Inc.; CME Institute/Physicians Postgraduate Press, Inc.; Eli Lilly and Company; Forest Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; GlaxoSmithKline; Imedex, LLC; MGH Psychiatry Academy/Primedia; MGH Psychiatry Academy/Reed Elsevier; Novartis AG; Organon Pharmaceuticals; Pfizer Inc.; PharmaStar; United BioSource, Corp.; Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories; he has equity holdings in Compellis and PsyBrain, Inc.; he has a patent for Sequential Parallel Comparison Design (SPCD), which are licensed by MGH to Pharmaceutical Product Development, LLC (PPD); and patent application for a combination of Ketamine plus Scopolamine in Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), licensed by MGH to Biohaven; and he receives copyright royalties for the MGH Cognitive & Physical Functioning Questionnaire (CPFQ), Sexual Functioning Inventory (SFI), Antidepressant Treatment Response Questionnaire (ATRQ), Discontinuation-Emergent Signs & Symptoms (DESS), Symptoms of Depression Questionnaire (SDQ), and SAFER; Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins; Wolkers Kluwer; World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd. M.H.T. is or has been an advisor/consultant and received fee from (lifetime disclosure): Abbott Laboratories, Inc., Abdi Ibrahim, Akzo (Organon Pharmaceuticals Inc.), Alkermes, AstraZeneca, Axon Advisors, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, Cephalon, Inc., Cerecor, CME Institute of Physicians, Concert Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Eli Lilly & Company, Evotec, Fabre-Kramer Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Forest Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Global Services, LLC, Janssen Pharmaceutica Products, LP, Johnson & Johnson PRD, Libby, Lundbeck, Meade Johnson, MedAvante, Medtronic, Merck, Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Development America, Inc., Naurex, Neuronetics, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, Pamlab, Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Pfizer Inc., PgxHealth, Phoenix Marketing Solutions, Rexahn Pharmaceuticals, Ridge Diagnostics, Roche Products Ltd., Sepracor, SHIRE Development, Sierra, SK Life and Science, Sunovion, Takeda, Tal Medical/Puretech Venture, Targacept, Transcept, VantagePoint, Vivus, and Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories. In addition, he has received grants/research support from: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Cyberonics, Inc., National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Depression, National Institute of Mental Health and National Institute on Drug Abuse. G.A.F., Y.Z., W.W., C.C., C.C.F., M.K., P.A. and J.T. report no competing interests. M.M. has no conflicts of interest with respect to this paper.

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