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.

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.