Neural correlates of improved executive function following erythropoietin treatment in mood disorders

Miskowiak, KW; Vinberg, M; Glerup, L; Paulson, OB; Knudsen, GM; Ehrenreich, H; Harmer, CJ; Kessing, LV; Siebner, HR; Macoveanu, J

Psychol Med, 2016 (in press)

BACKGROUND: Cognitive dysfunction in depression and bipolar disorder (BD) is insufficiently targeted by available treatments. Erythropoietin (EPO) increases neuroplasticity and may improve cognition in mood disorders, but the neuronal mechanisms of these effects are unknown. This functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study investigated the effects of EPO on neural circuitry activity during working memory (WM) performance.

METHOD: Patients with treatment-resistant major depression, who were moderately depressed, or with BD in partial remission, were randomized to eight weekly infusions of EPO (40 000 IU) (N = 30) or saline (N = 26) in a double-blind, parallel-group design. Patients underwent fMRI, mood ratings and blood tests at baseline and week 14. During fMRI patients performed an n-back WM task.

RESULTS: EPO improved WM accuracy compared with saline (p = 0.045). Whole-brain analyses revealed that EPO increased WM load-related activity in the right superior frontal gyrus (SFG) compared with saline (p = 0.01). There was also enhanced WM load-related deactivation of the left hippocampus in EPO-treated compared to saline-treated patients (p = 0.03). Across the entire sample, baseline to follow-up changes in WM performance correlated positively with changes in WM-related SFG activity and negatively with hippocampal response (r = 0.28-0.30, p < 0.05). The effects of EPO were not associated with changes in mood or red blood cells (p ⩾0.08).

CONCLUSIONS: The present findings associate changes in WM-load related activity in the right SFG and left hippocampus with improved executive function in EPO-treated patients.



Fewer study participants needed to demonstrate superior antidepressant efficacy when using the Hamilton melancholia subscale (HAM-D6) as outcome measure

Østergaard SD, Bech P, Miskowiak KW

 J Affect Disord. 2016 Jan 15;190:842-5


In the development of new antidepressant treatments, the failed study has unfortunately become a prevalent problem. The number of failed studies could probably be reduced significantly by applying more informative outcome measures. Previous studies have indicated that the 6-item melancholia subscale (HAM-D6) of the 17-item Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D17) may be more informative than other scales, due to its superior psychometric properties. In the present study we investigated whether the HAM-D6 had higher informativeness than the HAM-D17 based on data from a randomized placebo-controlled trial (RCT) testing the effect of erythropoietin (EPO) as augmentation therapy in patients with treatment-resistant depression.

We assessed the scalability (Mokken analysis of unidimensionality), responsiveness (item responsiveness analysis) and ability to show drug-placebo separation (estimation of sample size needed to detect statistically significant difference between EPO and placebo) of the HAM-D6 and the HAM-D17.

The HAM-D6 demonstrated higher scalability, higher responsiveness, and better drug-placebo separation compared to the HAM-D17. As a consequence, only 39 participants per group would be required to detect a statistically significant difference between EPO and placebo when using the HAM-D6 as outcome measure, whereas the required group size for HAM-D17 would be 146 participants.

The EPO RCT was not originally designed to investigate the research questions addressed in this study.

Both for ethical and financial reasons it is of interest to minimize the number of participants in clinical trials. Therefore, we suggest employing the HAM-D6 as outcome measure in clinical trials of depression.

Effects of Erythropoietin on Hippocampal Volume and Memory in Mood Disorders

Miskowiak KW, Vinberg M, Macoveanu J, Ehrenreich H, Køster N, Inkster B,
Paulson OB, Kessing LV, Skimminge A, Siebner HR

Biol Psychiatry. 2015 Aug 15;78(4):270-7


Persistent cognitive dysfunction in depression and bipolar disorder (BD) impedes patients’ functional recovery. Erythropoietin (EPO) increases neuroplasticity and reduces cognitive difficulties in treatment-resistant depression (TRD) and remitted BD. This magnetic resonance imaging study assessed the neuroanatomical basis for these effects.

Patients with TRD who were moderately depressed or BD in partial remission were randomized to 8 weekly EPO (40,000 IU) or saline infusions in a double-blind, parallel-group design. Patients underwent magnetic resonance imaging, memory assessment with the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test, and mood ratings with the Beck Depression Inventory, Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, and Young Mania Rating Scale at baseline and week 14. Hippocampus segmentation and analysis of hippocampal volume, shape, and gray matter density were conducted with FMRIB Software Library tools. Memory change was analyzed with repeated-measures analysis of covariance adjusted for depression symptoms, diagnosis, age, and gender.

Eighty-four patients were randomized; 1 patient withdrew and data collection was incomplete for 14 patients; data were thus analyzed for 69 patients (EPO: n = 35, saline: n = 34). Compared with saline, EPO was associated with mood-independent memory improvement and reversal of brain matter loss in the left hippocampal cornu ammonis 1 to cornu ammonis 3 and subiculum. Using the entire sample, memory improvement was associated with subfield hippocampal volume increase independent of mood change.

EPO-associated memory improvement in TRD and BD may be mediated by reversal of brain matter loss in a subfield of the left hippocampus. EPO may provide a therapeutic option for patients with mood disorders who have impaired neuroplasticity and cognition.


The effect of recombinant erythropoietin on plasma brain derived neurotrophic factor levels in patients with affective disorders: a randomised controlled study

Vinberg M, Miskowiak K, Hoejman P, Pedersen M, Kessing LV

PLoS One. 2015 May 26;10(5):e0127629

The study aims to investigate the effect of repeated infusions of recombinant erythropoietin (EPO) on plasma brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels in patients with affective disorders. In total, 83 patients were recruited: 40 currently depressed patients with treatment-resistant depression (TRD) (Hamilton Depression Rating Scale-17 items (HDRS-17) score >17) (study 1) and 43 patients with bipolar disorder (BD) in partial remission (HDRS-17 and Young Mania Rating Scale (YMRS) ≤ 14) (study 2). In both studies, patients were randomised to receive eight weekly EPO (Eprex; 40,000 IU) or saline (0.9% NaCl) infusions in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel–group design. Plasma BDNF levels were measured at baseline and at weeks 5, 9 and at follow up, week 14. In contrast with our hypothesis, EPO down regulated plasma BDNF levels in patients with TRD (mean reduction at week 9 (95% CI): EPO 10.94 ng/l (4.51-21.41 ng/l); mean increase at week 9: Saline 0.52 ng/l, p=0.04 (-5.88-4.48 ng/l) p=0.04, partial ŋ2=0.12). No significant effects were found on BDNF levels in partially remitted patients with BD (p=0.35). The present effects of EPO on BDNF levels in patients with TRD point to a role of neurotrophic factors in the potential effects of EPO seen in TRD and BD. The neurobiological mechanisms underlying these effects and the interaction between EPO and peripheral levels on BDNF need to be further elucidated in human studies including a broad range of biomarkers.


Effects of Short-Term Cognitive Remediation on Cognitive Dysfunction in Partially or Fully Remitted Individuals with Bipolar Disorder: Results of a Randomised Controlled Trial

Demant KM, Vinberg M, Kessing LV, Miskowiak KW

PLoS One. 2015 Jun 12;10(6):e0127955


Cognitive dysfunction is common in bipolar disorder (BD) but is not sufficiently addressed by current treatments. Cognitive remediation (CR) may improve cognitive function in schizophrenia but no randomised controlled trial has investigated this intervention in BD. The present study aimed to investigate the effects of CR on persistent cognitive dysfunction in BD.

Patients with BD in partial remission with cognitive complaints were randomised to 12 weeks group-based CR (n=23) or standard treatment (ST) (n=23). Outcomes were improved verbal memory (primary), sustained attention, executive and psychosocial function (secondary) and additional measures of cognitive and psychosocial function (tertiary). Participants were assessed at baseline and weeks 12 and 26.

Of the 46 randomised participants five dropped out and one was excluded after baseline. CR (n=18) had no effect on primary or secondary measures of cognitive or psychosocial function compared with ST (n=22). However, CR improved subjective sharpness at week 12, and quality of life and verbal fluency at week 26 follow-up (tertiary outcomes). Although the trial turned out to have suboptimal statistical power for the primary outcome analysis, calculation of the 95% confidence interval showed that it was highly unlikely that an increase in sample size would have rendered any beneficial effects of CR vs. ST on the verbal memory.

Short-term group-based CR did not seem to improve overall cognitive or psychosocial function in individuals with BD in full or partial remission. The present findings suggest that that longer-term, more intensive and individualised CR may be necessary to improve cognition in BD.


Assessment of subjective and objective cognitive function in bipolar disorder: Correlations, predictors and the relation to psychosocial function

Demant KM, Vinberg M, Kessing LV, Miskowiak KW

Psychiatry Res. 2015 Sep 30;229(1-2):565-71


Cognitive dysfunction is prevalent in bipolar disorder (BD). However, the evidence regarding the association between subjective cognitive complaints, objective cognitive performance and psychosocial function is sparse and inconsistent. Seventy seven patients with bipolar disorder who presented cognitive complaints underwent assessment of objective and subjective cognitive function and psychosocial functioning as part of their participation in two clinical trials. We investigated the association between global and domain-specific objective and subjective cognitive function and between global cognitive function and psychosocial function. We also identified clinical variables that predicted objective and subjective cognitive function and psychosocial functioning. There was a correlation between global subjective and objective measures of cognitive dysfunction but not within the individual cognitive domains. However, the correlation was weak, suggesting that cognitive complaints are not an assay of cognition per se. Self-rated psychosocial difficulties were associated with subjective (but not objective) cognitive impairment and both subjective cognitive and psychosocial difficulties were predicted by depressive symptoms. Our findings indicate that adequate assessment of cognition in the clinical treatment of BD and in drug trials targeting cognition requires implementation of not only subjective measures but also of objective neuropsychological tests.

Healthy co-twins of patients with affective disorders show reduced risk-related activation of the insula during a monetary gambling task

Macoveanu J, Miskowiak KW, Kessing LV, Siebner HR, Vinberg M

J Psychiatry Neuroscience (in press)


Background: Healthy first-degree relatives to patients with affective disorders are at increased risk for affective disorders and express discrete structural and functional abnormalities in the brain reward system. However, the value-based decision-making is not well understood in these at-risk individuals.

Methods: We investigated healthy monozygotic (n = 30) and dizygotic (n = 37) twins with or without a co-twin history of affective disorders (high-risk and low-risk groups, respectively) using functional MRI while performing a gambling task. We assessed group differences in activity related to gambling risk over the entire brain.

Results: Neural activity in anterior insula and ventral striatum increased linearly with the amount of gambling risk in the entire cohort. Individual neuroticism scores were positively correlated with the neural response in ventral striatum to increasing gambling risk and negatively correlated with individual risk-taking behavior. Compared with low-risk twins, the high-risk twins showed a bilateral reduction of risk-related activity in the middle insula extending into temporal cortex with increasing gambling risk. Post-hoc analyses revealed that this effect was strongest in dizygotic twins.

Limitations: The higher average age of the twin cohort (49.2 years) may indicate an increased resilience to affective disorders. The size of the monozygotic high-risk group was relatively small (n=13).

Conclusion: The reduced processing of risk magnitude in the middle insula may indicate a deficient integration of exteroceptive information related to risk-related cues with interoceptive states in individuals at familial risk for affective disorders. Impaired risk processing might contribute to increased vulnerability to affective disorders.

Cognitive dysfunction in depression – pathophysiology and novel targets

Carvalho AF, Miskowiak KW, Hyphantis TN, Kohler CA, Alves GS, Bortolato B, G Sales PM, Machado-Vieira R, Berk M, McIntyre R

CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2014;13(10):1819-35.


Major depressive disorder (MDD) is associated with cognitive dysfunction encompassing several domains, including memory, executive function, processing speed and attention. Cognitive deficits persist in a significant proportion of patients even in remission, compromising psychosocial functioning and workforce performance. While monoaminergic antidepressants may improve cognitive performance in MDD, most antidepressants have limited clinical efficacy. The overarching aims of this review were: (1) to synthesize extant literature on putative biological pathways related to cognitive dysfunction in MDD and (2) to review novel neurotherapeutic targets for cognitive enhancement in MDD. We found that reciprocal and overlapping biological pathways may contribute to cognitive dysfunction in MDD, including an hyperactive hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, an increase in oxidative and nitrosative stress, inflammation (e.g., enhanced production of pro-inflammatory cytokines), mitochondrial dysfunction, increased apoptosis as well as a diminished neurotrophic support. Several promising neurotherapeutic targets were identified such as minocycline, statins, anti-inflammatory compounds, N-acetylcysteine, omega-3 poliunsaturated fatty acids, erythropoietin, thiazolidinediones, glucagon-like peptide-1 analogues, S-adenosyl-l-methionine (SAMe), cocoa flavonols, creatine monohydrate and lithium. Erythropoietin and SAMe had pro-cognitive effects in randomized controlled trials (RCT) involving MDD patients. Despite having preclinical and/or preliminary evidences from trials suggesting possible efficacy as novel cognitive enhancing agents for MDD, no RCT to date was performed for most of the other therapeutic targets reviewed herein. In conclusion, multiple biological pathways are involved in cognitive dysfunction in MDD. RCTs testing genuinely novel pro-cognitive compounds for MDD are warranted.

‘Hot’ cognition in major depressive disorder: a systematic review

Miskowiak KW, Carvalho AF

CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2014;13(10):1787-803.


Major depressive disorder (MDD) is associated with significant cognitive dysfunction in both ‘hot’ (i.e. emotion-laden) and ‘cold’ (non-emotional) domains. Here we review evidence pertaining to ‘hot’ cognitive changes in MDD. This systematic review searched the PubMed and PsycInfo computerized databases in May 2014 augmented by hand searches of reference lists. We included original articles in which MDD participants (or their healthy first-degree relatives) and a healthy control group were compared on standard measures of emotional processing or reward/ punishment processing as well as systematic reviews and meta-analyses. A total of 116 articles met the inclusion criteria of which 97 were original studies. Negative biases in perception, attention and memory for emotional information, and aberrant reward/punishment processing occur in MDD. Imbalanced responses to negative stimuli in a fronto-limbic network with hyper-activity in limbic and ventral prefrontal regions paired with hypo-activity of dorsal prefrontal regions subserve these abnormalities. A cross-talk of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ cognition disturbances in MDD occurs. Disturbances in ‘hot cognition’ may also contribute to the perpetuation of negative emotional states in MDD. Limited success in the identification of susceptibility genes in MDD has led to great research interest in identifying vulnerability biomarkers or endophenotypes. Emerging evidence points to the persistence of ‘hot’ cognition dysfunction during remission and to subtle ‘hot’ cognition deficits in healthy relatives of patients with MDD. Taken together, these findings suggest that abnormalities in ‘hot’ cognition may constitute a candidate neurocognitive endophenotype for depression.

Recombinant human erythropoietin to target cognitive dysfunction in bipolar disorder: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled phase 2 trial

Miskowiak KW, Ehrenreich H, Christensen EM, Kessing LV, Vinberg M

J Clin Psychiatry. 2014 Dec;75(12):1347-55.


OBJECTIVE: Available drug treatments for bipolar disorder fail to reverse patients’ cognitive deficits. Erythropoietin has neurotrophic actions and aids neurocognitive function. The aim of the study was to investigate the potential of erythropoietin to treat cognitive dysfunction in bipolar disorder.

METHOD: Patients with an ICD-10 diagnosis of bipolar disorder in remission were randomized, with stratification by age and gender, to receive 8 weekly erythropoietin (40,000 IU) or saline (sodium chloride [NaCl], 0.9%) infusions in a double-blind, parallel-group design. The first patient was randomized in September 2009 and last assessment was completed in October 2012. Patients were assessed at baseline and at weeks 9 and 14. The primary outcome was change in verbal memory indexed by the total words recalled across Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test learning trials (I-V) from baseline to week 9; secondary outcomes were sustained attention and facial expression recognition; and tertiary outcomes were attention, executive function, subjective cognitive function, and mood. Analysis was by intention to treat, using repeated-measures analysis of covariance adjusted for stratification variables and mood. The statistical threshold for which results were considered significant was P ≤ .05 (2-tailed).

RESULTS: 44 patients were randomized; given 1 dropout after baseline, results were analyzed for 43 patients (erythropoietin: n = 23; saline: n = 20). There was no significant improvement of verbal memory in erythropoietin versus saline groups (P = .10). However, erythropoietin enhanced sustained attention (P = .001), recognition of happy faces (P = .03), and speed of complex information processing across learning, attention, and executive function (P = .01). These effects occurred in absence of changes in simple reaction times or mood (P values ≥ .16) and were maintained after red blood cell normalization.

CONCLUSIONS: This is the first trial investigating erythropoietin to treat cognitive dysfunction in bipolar disorder. The findings highlight erythropoietin as a candidate treatment for deficits in attention and executive function in bipolar disorder.

TRIAL REGISTRATION: identifier: NCT00916552.