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Emerging Treatments

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2023

Treating major depressive disorder (MDD) with antidepressant drugs and talk therapy can be helpful for many. But some people have symptoms that do not respond to these methods. People with treatment-resistant depression may have tried all currently available options. Also, not everyone can take antidepressant drugs. And their side effects are bothersome for some people.1

Thankfully, research into new treatment options for depression is always ongoing. Some of the most common areas of research for emerging options are in SPECT and PET scans, digital “smart” pills, psilocybin (mushrooms), and more.

SPECT and PET scans

Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans are 2 options for looking at the brain. They each use radioactive chemicals that are traced in the body. The chemicals concentrate in areas of higher blood flow or brain activity, depending on the type of scan.2,3

SPECT and PET scans can be used to diagnose certain diseases like cancer. They can also help doctors understand how the brain functions. This technology may be helpful in mapping the way the brain works in people with depression.2-6

This could potentially help with the diagnosis and treatment of MDD. Scientists think understanding how the brain changes in response to different treatment options may help predict who will benefit from them. And discovering trends in brain activity for those with treatment-resistant depression may help doctors predict harder-to-treat cases.4-6

SPECT and PET are not formally approved to be used in the diagnosis and treatment planning for MDD. More research is needed to understand their true benefit.4-6

Digital “smart” pills

Over time, technology is getting more able to affect people’s health. An example of this is the Abilify MyCite® “smart” pill. The pill has a small sensor that transmits signals to a patch on the skin after it is taken. People can use a phone app to track the pill and any related symptoms they are having.7

Tracking these factors can help people remember to take their treatment for the day. It can also help monitor them for changes in their depression symptoms.7

Abilify is the brand name for a drug called aripiprazole. It is used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder (MDD). For people with MDD, it is often used alongside other antidepressant drugs. You and your doctor can work together to determine whether aripiprazole and its smart pill option might be a good option for you.7

Other digital tools

Other digital tools can be used for general symptom tracking and treatment, too. Several apps and wearable devices monitor blood pressure, heart rate, and more throughout the day. You can also enter information about your mood and other symptoms you are having.8,9

This can lead to lots of data that you and your doctor can use to better understand your experience with depression, its triggers, and your response to treatment.8,9

Some smartphone apps and other digital tools also can deliver talk therapy (psychotherapy). Several games are designed to help reduce anxiety and develop problem-solving skills as well. How effective these are compared to traditional treatment options is still being researched.8,9

Psilocybin mushrooms

Psilocybin is commonly known as the recreational drug magic mushrooms (or “shrooms”). It is a type of psychedelic drug that affects perception. Research into psilocybin has been rapidly increasing in recent years.10,11

Some experts believe psilocybin has the potential to treat mental health conditions including:10-12

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use disorder

Psilocybin may be especially helpful for people with treatment-resistant depression. But experts do not yet understand the way it impacts the brain to help with these issues.10-12

Psilocybin changes a person’s perception of the world around them. Using it to treat MDD may require close monitoring by trained professionals to ensure your safety. Psilocybin is still illegal in most parts of the country and is not considered a valid treatment modality at this time. Do not take it on your own without support.10,11

Ketamine

Ketamine is another psychedelic drug. It causes a feeling of being disconnected from your body. It is often used as a form of anesthesia before medical procedures. Experts think it may provide fast relief from depression symptoms like suicidal thoughts. It may also help brain cells form new connections that improve thinking and mood. But much more research is needed to understand its true effect.13,14

Ketamine in the form of a nasal spray called esketamine (Spravato®) has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used for treatment-resistant depression. Ketamine is generally thought of as safe and fast-acting. But it causes many changes in the body, so it must be used under the direct supervision of a doctor. Also, many people experience impairment after treatment so it is important to have support for a time after these treatments.14,15

SAINT-TRD

Stanford accelerated intelligent neuromodulation therapy (SAINT-TRD) is a form of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). It has been used to treat people with treatment-related depression. But it is still being researched.16

In rTMS, magnetic pulses are delivered to the brain. These pulses help activate specific regions of the brain that may play a role in mood. People undergoing rTMS may need treatment sessions several times a week for up to 6 weeks at a time.16,17

But SAINT-TRD is a newer form of rTMS that works faster. It uses higher doses of magnetic pulses guided by brain imaging like MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). It is done over 5 days. This shorter timeline of treatment may be especially helpful for being in emergency or crisis situations.16,17

More research is needed

These treatment options are still being researched and may not be accessible to all. Affordability is also unclear. More research is needed to understand how they can be used to treat mental health conditions.

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