Cognitive biomarkers of antidepressant drug efficacy

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Psychiatry


Clinical depression is a common and extremely disabling condition. Although drug treatments for depression exist, these do not work for a substantial proportion of patients and for some they may only reduce the symptoms rather than allowing a full recovery. One of the problems with developing new more effective treatments is that the drugs need to be tested in clinical trials with depressed patients, which takes a lot of time and is very costly. In addition, a significant number of drugs may tested in this way are found, in fact, to be ineffective. One way of improving the development of new drugs is to have models which are able to predict the likely success of new treatments. At the moment this is carried out with animal models, but these often fail to capture human aspects of depression which involves negative thoughts and beliefs. We have developed some models for use with healthy volunteers which are sensitive to antidepressant drug action and which examine how people deal with emotional information. This work suggests that antidepressants increase how we attend to, recognise and remember positive emotional information such as happy facial expressions of emotion. The current application aims to explore this in more detail and confirm whether these effects are seen with different kinds of antidepressant drug treatments. This will help us understand whether these emotional changes occur irrespective of the precise way in which the drug affects the chemicals in the brain and also to what extent these models can predict whether a drug will be good for depression or for anxiety symptoms. We will also test whether these models could have predicted drug treatments which have failed to work in depression (though did work in the animal models) and finally whether these models can help identify drugs which may increase the likelihood of depression and which may therefore need to be used with caution in people at high risk of developing depression. These studies will help us understand what makes a good treatment for depression. Also this will develop the use of these models for the screening and detection of novel treatments which have particular promise for depression, therefore reducing the low hit rate of successful treatments in the clinic and speeding up the drug discovery process.

Technical Summary

Depression is a common condition associated with very substantial health disabilities and limited treatment options. The major bottleneck in improving drug treatment is the lack of valid animal models; this hinders translation of new therapies from the bench into the clinic. Human cognitive biomarker models may be better placed to detect and understand neuropsychological processes in this uniquely human disorder. Such models could be invaluable in enabling better selection of novel antidepressant compounds for subsequent randomised clinical trials and in providing a likely indication of their overall therapeutic profile. Equally, valid human biomarkers might be helpful in identifying drugs with a significant risk of provoking depression during clinical use. There is now substantial evidence that negative biases in the processing of emotional information play a key role in the onset and maintenance of clinical mood disorders. We have shown that antidepressant treatment in healthy subjects produces biases in tasks of emotional processing that essentially are the opposite of those seen in depression. The aim of the present application is to validate these tasks as effective cognitive biomarkers of antidepressant action applicable to the assessment of the novel candidate compounds by assessing the following hypotheses 1) that early effects on emotional processing also occur with antidepressants acting via different mechanisms 2) that these cognitive biomarkers can distinguish agents which have antidepressant activity from those whose therapeutic effects are confined to anxiety disorders; 3) that our cognitive biomarkers are able to screen out ?false positives? by exploring the failed Nk1 antagonist aprepitant 4) that these biomarkers will be able to detect agents likely to cause depression as an adverse effect. These studies should provide validation of a cognitive biomarker approach for screening and understanding novel candidate agents in an area of high unmet need.
Description UCB Alliance funding
Amount £300,000 (GBP)
Organisation UCB Pharma 
Department UCB Celltech
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 12/2016
Description Wellcome Trust Strategic Award
Amount £1,500,000 (GBP)
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2014 
End 06/2016
Title Emotional Test Battery 
Description This battery of emotional tasks was validated by the study conducted under this MRC award 
Type Of Material Model of mechanisms or symptoms - human 
Year Produced 2009 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Interest and funding from the pharmaceutical industry 
Title Biomarker : antidepressant drug action 
Description Our models of emotional processing are gaining increasing interest as biomarkers of effective antidepressant drug action. Collaborations with pharmaceutical industry have increased and we have used these models in phase 1 studies with novel compounds as proof of concept. 
Type Support Tool - For Medical Intervention
Current Stage Of Development Early clinical assessment
Year Development Stage Completed 2008
Development Status Actively seeking support
Impact Increased funding from industry; useful information on dosing requirements for novel compounds. 
Company Name p1vital 
Year Established 2004 
Impact Steering experimental medicine models for CNS drug development
Description BBC documentary 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation Keynote/Invited Speaker
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This MRC work appeared in a BBC documentary 'the truth about depression', for Northen Ireland. This was aired in Febuary 2013. I received numerous contacts following this for more information from interested members of the public.

I received numerous contacts following this for more information from interested members of the public
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Cheltenham Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Type Of Presentation Keynote/Invited Speaker
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 200 people attended the presentations (Harmer, pariante and Ruby Wax) and we continued the discussion in a talking point afterwards. This provided a broad perspective on people interested in (and often treated for) depression and we were able to share our findings and learn from the response of the group.

Positive feedback was received from those attending.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Scientific Mind Article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Type Of Presentation Paper Presentation
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This publication will appear in December 2013.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013