Association of BDNF, HTR2A, TPH1, SLC6A4, and COMT polymorphisms with tDCS and escitalopram efficacy: ancillary analysis of a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial

Andre R. Brunoni Angel Carracedo Olalla M. Amigo Ana L. Pellicer Leda Talib Andre F. Carvalho Paulo A. Lotufo Isabela M. Benseñor Wagner Gattaz Carolina Cappi About the authors

Abstract

Objective:

We investigated whether single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with neuroplasticity and activity of monoamine neurotransmitters, such as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF, rs6265), the serotonin transporter (SLC6A4, rs25531), the tryptophan hydroxylase 1 (TPH1, rs1800532), the 5-hydroxytryptamine receptor 2A (HTR2A, rs6311, rs6313, rs7997012), and the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT, rs4680) genes, are associated with efficacy of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in major depression.

Methods:

Data from the Escitalopram vs. Electrical Current Therapy for Treating Depression Clinical Study (ELECT-TDCS) were used. Participants were antidepressant-free at baseline and presented with an acute, moderate-to-severe unipolar depressive episode. They were randomized to receive escitalopram/tDCS-sham (n=75), tDCS/placebo-pill (n=75), or placebo-pill/sham-tDCS (n=45). General linear models assessed the interaction between treatment group and allele-wise carriers. Additional analyses were performed for each group and each genotype separately.

Results:

Pairwise group comparisons (tDCS vs. placebo, tDCS vs. escitalopram, and escitalopram vs. placebo) did not identify alleles associated with depression improvement. In addition, exploratory analyses also did not identify any SNP unequivocally associated with improvement of depression in any treatment group.

Conclusion:

Larger, combined datasets are necessary to identify candidate genes for tDCS response.

Major depressive disorder; non-invasive brain stimulation; single-nucleotide polymorphism; selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors; randomized clinical trial


Introduction

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive brain stimulation intervention that consists of the application of low-intensity electric currents over the scalp to modify brain activity and excitability according to the parameters selected for stimulation.11. Woods AJ, Antal A, Bikson M, Boggio PS, Brunoni AR, Celnik P, et al. A technical guide to tDCS, and related non-invasive brain stimulation tools. Clin Neurophysiol. 2016;127:1031-48.

2. Bikson M, Brunoni AR, Charvet LE, Clark VP, Cohen LG, Deng ZD, et al. Rigor and reproducibility in research with transcranial electrical stimulation: an NIMH-sponsored workshop. Brain Stimul. 2018;11:465-80.
-33. Brunoni AR, Sampaio-Junior B, Moffa AH, Aparício LV, Gordon P, Klein I, et al. Noninvasive brain stimulation in psychiatric disorders: a primer. Braz J Psychiatr. 2019;41:70-81. For major depressive disorder (MDD), tDCS is applied over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a key hub of the frontoparietal network, which regulates several cognitive functions and is hypoactive in depression.44. Kaiser RH, Andrews-Hanna JR, Wager TD, Pizzagalli DA. Large-scale network dysfunction in major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of resting-state functional connectivity. JAMA Psychiatry 2015;72:603-11. Although the exact antidepressant mechanisms of tDCS remain unclear, it is speculated that, by stimulating the DLPFC, tDCS would increase the activity of the frontoparietal network, consequently leading to an improvement of depressive symptoms.55. Baeken C, De Raedt R. Neurobiological mechanisms of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation on the underlying neurocircuitry in unipolar depression. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2011;13:139-45.

Clinically, tDCS excels in safety and tolerability66. Aparicio LV, Guarienti F, Razza LB, Carvalho AF, Fregni F, Brunoni AR. A systematic review on the acceptability and tolerability of transcranial direct current stimulation treatment in neuropsychiatry trials. Brain Stimul. 2016;9:671-81.,77. Antal A, Alekseichuk I, Bikson M, Brockmöller J, Brunoni AR, Chen R, et al. Low intensity transcranial electric stimulation: Safety, ethical, legal regulatory and application guidelines. Clin Neurophysiol. 2017;128:1774-809. and can even be used at home.88. Palm U, Kumpf U, Behler N, Wulf L, Kirsch B, Wörsching J, et al. Home use, remotely supervised, and remotely controlled transcranial direct current stimulation: a systematic review of the available evidence. Neuromodulation. 2018;21:323-33. Nonetheless, tDCS has produced mixed outcomes in terms of antidepressant efficacy.99. Loo CK, Husain MM, McDonald WM, Aaronson S, O'Reardon JP, Alonzo A, et al. International randomized-controlled trial of transcranial direct current stimulation in depression. Brain Stimul. 2018;11:125-33.

10. Mutz J, Edgcumbe DR, Brunoni AR, Fu CH. Efficacy and acceptability of non-invasive brain stimulation for the treatment of adult unipolar and bipolar depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised sham-controlled trials. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2018;92:291-303.

11. Moffa AH, Brunoni AR, Nikolin S, Loo CK. Transcranial direct current stimulation in psychiatric disorders: a comprehensive review. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2018;41:447-63.
-1212. Borrione L, Moffa AH, Martin D, Loo CK, Brunoni AR. Transcranial direct current stimulation in the acute depressive episode: a systematic review of current knowledge. J ECT. 2018;34:153-63. This may reflect a heterogeneous likelihood of response across participants. Therefore, identifying predictors of response may provide useful insights into tDCS, such as clarifying its mechanisms of action, predicting treatment outcomes, and designing better-tailored trials within the framework of precision psychiatry.22. Bikson M, Brunoni AR, Charvet LE, Clark VP, Cohen LG, Deng ZD, et al. Rigor and reproducibility in research with transcranial electrical stimulation: an NIMH-sponsored workshop. Brain Stimul. 2018;11:465-80.,1313. Brunoni AR, Fregni F. Clinical trial design in non-invasive brain stimulation psychiatric research. Int J Methods Psychiatr Res. 2011;20:e19-30.,1414. Fernandes BS, Williams LM, Steiner J, Leboyer M, Carvalho AF, Berk M. The new field of “precision psychiatry.” BMC Med 2017;15:80. In this context, the investigation of genomic variants, such as common single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), has been considered a promising avenue to tailor antidepressant strategies.1515. Fischer S, Gardini ES, Haas F, Cleare AJ. Polymorphisms in genes related to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and antidepressant response – systematic review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019;96:182-96.

16. Kishi T, Yoshimura R, Fukuo Y, Matsunaga S, Umene-Nakano W, Nakamura J, et al. The serotonin 1A receptor gene confer susceptibility to mood disorders: results from an extended meta-analysis of patients with major depression and bipolar disorder. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2013;263:105-18.
-1717. Kato M, Serretti A. Review and meta-analysis of antidepressant pharmacogenetic findings in major depressive disorder. Mol Psychiatry. 2010;15:473-500. Furthermore, compared to other biological markers such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), SNPs are relatively more available and affordable to collect and analyse.1818. Brunoni AR, Nitsche MA, Bolognini N, Bikson M, Wagner T, Merabet L, et al. Clinical research with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS): challenges and future directions. Brain Stimul. 2012;5:175-95.

In the present study, we investigated whether specific SNPs involved in MDD pathophysiology were associated with tDCS response. According to our study protocol,1919. Brunoni AR, Sampaio-Junior B, Moffa AH, Borrione L, Nogueira BS, Aparício LV, et al. The escitalopram versus electric current therapy for treating depression clinical Study (ELECT-TDCS): rationale and study design of a non-inferiority, triple-arm, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Sao Paulo Med J. 2015;133:252-63. the following genes and SNPs associated with treatment response in MDD, neuroplasticity, and serotonin metabolism were investigated:

  1. brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF, rs6265, chromosome 11p13): the BDNF gene was chosen because the factor it encodes plays a key role in synaptic plasticity, depression and antidepressant response.2020. Hing B, Sathyaputri L, Potash JB. A comprehensive review of genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that regulate BDNF expression and function with relevance to major depressive disorder. Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 2018;177:143-67. The most frequent BDNF genetic variation is the 196G/A (rs6265) SNP, which causes a change from Val to Met at the 5′-pro protein site. This polymorphism disrupts cellular trafficking, processing, and BDNF secretion,2121. Egan MF, Kojima M, Callicott JH, Goldberg TE, Kolachana BS, Bertolino A, et al. The BDNF val66met polymorphism affects activity-dependent secretion of BDNF and human memory and hippocampal function. Cell. 2003;112:257-69. and impairs synaptic transmission and cortical plasticity.2222. Pattwell SS, Bath KG, Perez-Castro R, Lee FS, Chao MV, Ninan I. The BDNF Val66Met polymorphism impairs synaptic transmission and plasticity in the infralimbic medial prefrontal cortex. J Neurosci. 2012;32:2410-21. Although we did not observe an influence of rs6265 on tDCS response in an earlier study,2323. Brunoni AR, Kemp AH, Shiozawa P, Cordeiro Q, Valiengo LC, Goulart AC, et al. Impact of 5-HTTLPR and BDNF polymorphisms on response to sertraline versus transcranial direct current stimulation: Implications for the serotonergic system. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2013;23:1530-40. our analyses might have been underpowered.

  2. solute carrier family 6 member 4 (SLC6A4, rs25531, chromosome 17q11.1-q12): SLC6A4 codifies the presynaptic serotonin reuptake transporter (SERT) and is characterized by a functional 44-bp insertion/deletion polymorphism (5HTTLPR) in its promoter region.2424. Collier DA, Stober G, Li T, Heils A, Catalano M, Di Bella D, et al. A novel functional polymorphism within the promoter of the serotonin transporter gene: possible role in susceptibility to affective disorders. Mol Psychiatry. 1996;1:453-60. This SNP was chosen because it has been consistently associated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant response2525. Crisafulli C, Fabbri C, Porcelli S, Drago A, Spina E, De Ronchi D, et al. Pharmacogenetics of antidepressants. Front Pharmacol. 2011;2:6.;

  3. tryptophan hydroxylase 1 (TPH1, rs1800532, chromosome 11p15.3-p14) polymorphism: the TPH enzyme metabolizes L-tryptophan to 5-HTP, which is then metabolized to serotonin by the enzyme 5-HTP decarboxylase. TPH regulates the activity of this metabolic pathway and, therefore, the availability of serotonin. Although the TPH1 isoform is less expressed in the brain than TPH2, the TPH1 gene has been particularly associated with antidepressant effects1717. Kato M, Serretti A. Review and meta-analysis of antidepressant pharmacogenetic findings in major depressive disorder. Mol Psychiatry. 2010;15:473-500.;

  4. 5-hydroxytryptamine receptor 2A (HTR2A, rs6311, rs6313, rs7997012, chromosome 13q14-q21) genes: this G protein-coupled receptor triggers long-term, intracellular effects when activated and therefore plays a critical role in the serotonergic system.2525. Crisafulli C, Fabbri C, Porcelli S, Drago A, Spina E, De Ronchi D, et al. Pharmacogenetics of antidepressants. Front Pharmacol. 2011;2:6. This SNP has been associated with depressive behaviors (including attempted suicide)2626. Du L, Bakish D, Lapierre YD, Ravindran AV, Hrdina PD. Association of polymorphism of serotonin 2A receptor gene with suicidal ideation in major depressive disorder. Am J Med Genet. 2000;96:56-60. and antidepressant response.2727. Van Oekelen D, Luyten WH, Leysen JE. 5-HT2A and 5-HT2C receptors and their atypical regulation properties. Life Sci. 2003;72:2429-49.

Finally, we conducted a post-hoc investigation of the impact of the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) Val66met polymorphism (rs4680), as later studies investigated the role of this SNP on the effects of tDCS2828. Plewnia C, Zwissler B, Langst I, Maurer B, Giel K, Kruger R. Effects of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on executive functions: influence of COMT Val/Met polymorphism. Cortex. 2013;49:1801-7. and antidepressant agents.2929. Martin DM, McClintock SM, Aaronson ST, Alonzo A, Husain MM, Lisanby SH, et al. Pre-treatment attentional processing speed and antidepressant response to transcranial direct current stimulation: results from an international randomized controlled trial. Brain Stimul. 2018;11:1282-90. Biologically, COMT enzymes degrade catecholamines, such as dopamine and (nor)epinephrine, and are associated with cognitive functions related to prefrontal cortex activity3030. Malhotra AK, Kestler LJ, Mazzanti C, Bates JA, Goldberg T, Goldman D. A functional polymorphism in the COMT gene and performance on a test of prefrontal cognition. Am J Psychiatry. 2002;159:652-4. (Table 1).

Table 1
Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) investigated in this study

Methods

Trial design

This is an ancillary study of the Escitalopram versus Electrical Current Therapy for Treating Depression Clinical Study (ELECT-TDCS), a non-inferiority, placebo-controlled trial in which the efficacy of tDCS, escitalopram, and placebo were evaluated.1919. Brunoni AR, Sampaio-Junior B, Moffa AH, Borrione L, Nogueira BS, Aparício LV, et al. The escitalopram versus electric current therapy for treating depression clinical Study (ELECT-TDCS): rationale and study design of a non-inferiority, triple-arm, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Sao Paulo Med J. 2015;133:252-63.,3131. Brunoni AR, Moffa AH, Sampaio-Junior B, Borrione L, Moreno ML, Fernandes RA, et al. Trial of electrical direct-current therapy versus escitalopram for depression. N Engl J Med. 2017;376:2523-33. The ELECT-TDCS trial (clinicaltrials.gov number NCT01894815)1919. Brunoni AR, Sampaio-Junior B, Moffa AH, Borrione L, Nogueira BS, Aparício LV, et al. The escitalopram versus electric current therapy for treating depression clinical Study (ELECT-TDCS): rationale and study design of a non-inferiority, triple-arm, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Sao Paulo Med J. 2015;133:252-63.,3131. Brunoni AR, Moffa AH, Sampaio-Junior B, Borrione L, Moreno ML, Fernandes RA, et al. Trial of electrical direct-current therapy versus escitalopram for depression. N Engl J Med. 2017;376:2523-33. took place from 2013 to 2016 at the Universidade de São Paulo, the capital of the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Participants were randomized to receive escitalopram-pill/sham-tDCS (henceforth, escitalopram), placebo-pill/active-tDCS (tDCS), or placebo-pill/sham-tDCS (placebo) in a 3:3:2 ratio.

ELECT-TDCS was designed to demonstrate noninferiority of escitalopram vs. tDCS. Specifically, noninferiority would be proven if the improvement in the tDCS vs. placebo groups was at least 50% of the improvement achieved in the escitalopram vs. placebo groups at the primary endpoint (week 10) on our primary outcome scale, the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, 17 items (HDRS-17). Briefly, the original study showed a mean (standard deviation [SD]) depression improvement in HDRS-17 of 11.3 (6.5) for escitalopram, 9 (7.1) for tDCS, and 5.8 (7.9) for placebo. The main findings showed that tDCS was not noninferior to escitalopram, as the lower boundary of the confidence interval for the difference in the decrease of tDCS vs. escitalopram, a difference of -2.3 (95% confidence interval [95%CI] -4.3 to -0.4), was lower than the noninferiority margin of -2.75. Secondary analyses showed that escitalopram and tDCS were both superior to placebo, and confirmed that escitalopram was superior to tDCS. Moreover, moderator analyses did not identify any clinical or demographic predictor associated with treatment response for any intervention group.

In ELECT-TDCS, we additionally investigated several biological markers that could be associated with clinical depression outcomes, such as plasma biomarkers and motor cortical excitability.3131. Brunoni AR, Moffa AH, Sampaio-Junior B, Borrione L, Moreno ML, Fernandes RA, et al. Trial of electrical direct-current therapy versus escitalopram for depression. N Engl J Med. 2017;376:2523-33.,3232. Brunoni AR, Padberg F, Vieira EL, Teixeira AL, Carvalho AF, Lotufo PA, et al. Plasma biomarkers in a placebo-controlled trial comparing tDCS and escitalopram efficacy in major depression. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2018;86:211-7. Here, we report data from the participants who finished the study and had at least one blood sample collected at baseline for genotyping.

Subjects

Participants with unipolar depression aged 18 to 75 years were included. Diagnoses were established by certified psychiatrists using the DSM-5 criteria, according to the Mini-International Neuropsychiatric Interview (MINI).3333. Amorim P. Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview (MINI): validação de entrevista breve para diagnóstico de transtornos mentais. Braz J Psychiatry. 2000;22:106-15. Only those participants who scored ≥ 17 points on the HDRS-17 and had low suicidal risk per the MINI were included.

The exclusion criteria were bipolar disorder, substance abuse/dependence, any history of psychotic disorder, current suicidal ideation, personality disorders, neurological diseases, and severe or unstable clinical conditions. In fact, only anxiety disorders were allowed as a comorbidity. Patients who had any contraindications to tDCS or escitalopram, previous non-response to escitalopram, pregnancy, breastfeeding, or use of escitalopram in the current major depressive episode were not included. Participants either were not using antidepressants or were required to undergo an antidepressant drug washout of at least five drug half-lives. Benzodiazepines were allowed at a maximum dose of 20 mg/day of diazepam or equivalent. Drug doses remained constant during the study.

Procedures

Clinical assessments were performed by board-certified psychiatrists and psychologists at specified time points according to the original protocol.1919. Brunoni AR, Sampaio-Junior B, Moffa AH, Borrione L, Nogueira BS, Aparício LV, et al. The escitalopram versus electric current therapy for treating depression clinical Study (ELECT-TDCS): rationale and study design of a non-inferiority, triple-arm, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Sao Paulo Med J. 2015;133:252-63.

For brain stimulation, we used tDCS-CT devices (SoterixMedical, New York, USA). The anode and cathode electrodes were inserted in saline-soaked, 5 × 5 cm2 sponges and then positioned using specific headgear to target the left and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortices.3434. Seibt O, Brunoni AR, Huang Y, Bikson M. The pursuit of DLPFC: non-neuronavigated methods to target the left dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex with symmetric bicephalic transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Brain Stimul. 2015;8:590-602. The protocol consisted of 22 sessions lasting 30 minutes each (15 sessions in the first 3 weeks, from Monday to Friday, and then weekly until the endpoint) with 2 mA intensity. For sham tDCS, the same protocol was used but the current was turned off automatically after 30 seconds, according to the configuration of the device. Trained nurses blinded to group assignment administered the tDCS regimen.

For drug treatment, escitalopram (or placebo) was given at 10 mg/day in the first 3 weeks and 20 mg/day thereafter until week 10. Placebo pills had the same taste, shape, and color of the verum pills. Both escitalopram and placebo pills were placed in drug bottles that contained only a numeric code prepared by a third person not involved in the trial.

Blood samples were collected by venipuncture, between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m., into ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA)-containing tubes. Within 24 hours, samples were transferred to the Genetic Laboratory of the Instituto do Coração, Hospital das Clínicas, São Paulo, Brazil, where DNA samples were extracted and further stored at -80 °C. After the trial was complete, we performed quality checks (DNA concentration and volume) of the samples at the Laboratório de Neurociências, Instituto de Psiquiatria, of the same hospital complex. The samples were genotyped at the National Genotyping Center (CEGEN) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (http://www.usc.es/cegen/).

The SNPs were analyzed using the MassARRAY SNP genotyping system (Agena Bioscience, San Diego, USA), in accordance with manufacturer instructions, at CEGEN. Briefly, the primers for amplification and extension were designed using Extend Primer Assay Design software v4. Sequenom iPLEX GOLD chemistry was used for locus-specific amplification, followed by a single-base primer extension reaction, which generated products of different masses that were quantitatively analyzed using MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry. The resulting data were analyzed using TyperAnalyzer software version 4, followed by manual inspection of the spectra by trained personnel.3535. Gabriel S, Ziaugra L, Tabbaa D. SNP genotyping using the sequenom massARRAY iPLEX platform. Curr Protoc Hum Genet. 2009;Chapter 2:Unit 2.12. All assays were performed in 384-well plates, including negative controls and a trio of Coriell samples (Na10860, Na10861, and Na11984) for quality control.

Statistical analysis

We used Stata 14 (StataCorp, College Station, Texas, USA) for all analyses. Results are described for the per-protocol sample. For descriptive data, clinical and demographic variables were compared across groups using one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA), chi-squared tests, or Fisher’s exact tests, when appropriate. Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium (HWE) was verified using the Full Bayesian Significance Test (FBST), an intuitive Bayesian approach that does not assign probabilities to zero-measure tests when testing sharp hypotheses.3636. Lauretto MS, Nakano F, Faria SR Jr, Pereira CA, Stern JM. A straightforward multiallelic significance test for the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium law. Genet Mol Biol. 2009;32:619-25. Analyses were considered significant at a threshold level of 0.05. To enhance statistical power, SNP analyses were performed allele-wise. We compared the minor allele frequency (MAF) allele vs. homozygotes for the major allele. MAF information was obtained on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Single Nucleotide Polymorphism Database (dbSNP)3737. Sherry ST, Ward MH, Kholodov M, Baker J, Phan L, Smigielski EM, et al. dbSNP: the NCBI database of genetic variation. Nucleic Acids Res. 2001;29:308-11. (Table 1).

To investigate whether the selected SNPs were predictors of depression improvement, we used generalized linear models (GLMs), implemented via the glm command in Stata. The dependent variable was the difference in HDRS-17 depression scores from baseline to endpoint. The independent variables were the assigned group intervention, the gene alleles, and the interaction thereof. We used different models comparing tDCS vs. placebo, tDCS vs. escitalopram, and escitalopram vs. placebo. Additionally, we ran separate models to assess the influence of alleles on each group and genotype-wise analyses investigating the influence of each of the three genotypes independently. Finally, we performed additional exploratory analyses, adding baseline depression scores (continuous variable) and self-declared ethnicity (white vs. non-white) as independent variables in our models.

Ethics statement

Participants provided written informed consent and the trial was approved by the local and national ethics committees.

Results

Overview

We report data from 195 participants (202 completed the study; two participants refused DNA collection, three samples were not collected due to technical reasons, and two DNA samples could not be identified). There were 75, 45, and 75 participants in the escitalopram, placebo, and tDCS groups, respectively.

We used Bayesian approaches to examine HWE based on the Bayesian asymptotic e-value. All the SNPs followed the population genotype proportions, except for rs6311, whose e-value was 0.04 (Table 2).

Table 2
Bayesian analysis of Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium (HWE)

There were no differences regarding main clinical and depression characteristics, including self-reported ethnicity and allele distribution (Table 3).

Table 3
Clinical, demographic, and allele distribution of the sample

Depression scores according to group and SNPs are summarized in Table 4.

Table 4
Depression scores at baseline (week 0), endpoint (week 10), and score difference (baseline minus endpoint) according to group and investigated single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)

Influence of SNPs on tDCS vs. placebo

We found no interaction between the SNPs and tDCS vs. placebo groups for allele-wise analyses of any of the investigated genes: BDNF (p = 0.80), TPH1 (p = 0.64), COMT (p = 0.58), SLC6A4 (p = 0.13), or the rs6311 (p = 0.68), rs6313 (p = 0.68), and rs7997012 (p = 0.56) SNPs of HTR2A.

Influence of SNPs on escitalopram vs. placebo

We found no interaction between the SNPs and escitalopram vs. placebo groups for allele-wise analyses of any of the investigated genes: BDNF (p = 0.85), TPH1 (p = 0.33), COMT (p = 0.65), SLC6A4 (p = 0.44), or the rs6311 (p = 0.98), rs6313 (p = 0.98), and rs7997012 (p = 0.81) SNPs of HTR2A.

Influence of SNPs on tDCS vs. escitalopram

We found no interaction between the SNPs and tDCS vs. escitalopram group for allele-wise analyses of any of the investigated genes: BDNF (p = 0.60), TPH1 (p = 0.06), COMT (p = 0.23), SLC6A4 (p = 0.32), or the rs6311 (p = 0.62), rs6313 (p = 0.62), and rs7997012 (p = 0.31) SNPs of HTR2A.

Influence of SNPs on each group separately

There was no influence of the MAF alleles of the BDNF (p = 0.84), TPH1 (p = 0.87), COMT (p = 0.75), SLC6A4 (p = 0.17), and HTR2A SNPs rs6311 (p = 0.66), rs6313 (p = 0.66), and rs7997012 (p = 0.76) on depression improvement in patients assigned to placebo.

Likewise, for tDCS, there was no influence of the MAF alleles of the BDNF (p = 0.48), TPH1 (p = 0.55), COMT (p = 0.63), SLC6A4 (p = 0.51), or HTR2A SNPs rs6311 (p = 0.95), rs6313 (p = 0.95), and rs7997012 (p = 0.59) on depression improvement.

For escitalopram, there was no influence of the MAF alleles of the BDNF (p = 0.98), COMT (p = 0.19), SLC6A4 (p = 0.45), or HTR2A SNPs rs6311 (p = 0.53), rs6313 (p = 0.54), and rs7997012 (p = 0.36) on depression improvement. For TPH1, T-allele carriers experienced less depression improvement than G/G homozygotes, with a significant (p = 0.038) difference of 3.2 (95%CI 6.2-0.18) points.

Genotype-wise analysis

For tDCS vs. placebo, we found no significant interactions between intervention and SNPs (p > 0.1). Nonetheless, trends were observed for the gene COMT, in which the tDCS-placebo difference tended to be larger in the AG vs. AA and GG vs AA genotypes (p = 0.06 and p = 0.09, respectively). In other words, the A (Met) allele tended to decrease improvement of depression with tDCS compared to placebo, although this effect was not statistically significant.

For tDCS vs. escitalopram, we found no significant interactions between intervention and SNPs (p > 0.1). Nonetheless, trends were observed for the gene TPH1, in which G/G homozygotes tended to present greater antidepressant response for escitalopram than tDCS (p = 0.057), and patients receiving escitalopram tended to present greater response when harboring the G/G rather than T/T genotype (p = 0.062). In other words, the G allele favored larger antidepressant effects of escitalopram vs. tDCS.

For escitalopram vs. placebo, no significant interactions between intervention and SNPs were found (all p>0.01), except for the gene TPH1. For this gene, patients presenting the G/G and G/T genotypes presented significantly greater antidepressant response for escitalopram than placebo (p = 0.002 and p = 0.001, respectively)

Exploratory analyses

Additional analyses introducing baseline depression severity and self-reported ethnicity as covariates in our models did not change our findings – i.e., no SNP was identified as a predictor of response.

Discussion

In the present study, we investigated whether SNPs in genes associated with neuroplasticity (BDNF), serotonin (SLC6A4, HTR2A, TPH1), and dopamine and noradrenaline (COMT) metabolism were associated with antidepressant response in the ELECT-TDCS trial. Except for the COMT polymorphism, which was analyzed after a recent international tDCS trial,99. Loo CK, Husain MM, McDonald WM, Aaronson S, O'Reardon JP, Alonzo A, et al. International randomized-controlled trial of transcranial direct current stimulation in depression. Brain Stimul. 2018;11:125-33. the SNPs were chosen a priori. In contrast to our hypotheses, no significant associations between these SNPs with tDCS vs. escitalopram and with tDCS vs. placebo antidepressant improvement were observed. Nonetheless, genotype-wise analyses showed non-statistically significant trends of the COMT polymorphism on tDCS vs. placebo and of the TPH1 polymorphism on tDCS vs. escitalopram and on escitalopram vs. placebo comparisons. These findings are further discussed below.

The COMT polymorphism is involved in regulating prefrontal dopamine levels. For instance, A/A (Met/Met) homozygotes have reduced dopamine catabolism3838. Lotta T, Vidgren J, Tilgmann C, Ulmanen I, Melén K, Julkunen I, et al. Kinetics of human soluble and membrane-bound catechol O-methyltransferase: a revised mechanism and description of the thermolabile variant of the enzyme. Biochemistry. 1995;34:4202-10. and greater prefrontal availability of dopamine. Plewnia et al.2828. Plewnia C, Zwissler B, Langst I, Maurer B, Giel K, Kruger R. Effects of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on executive functions: influence of COMT Val/Met polymorphism. Cortex. 2013;49:1801-7. observed that, among healthy subjects, Met/Met homozygotes had poorer performance on executive tests after anodal tDCS over the prefrontal cortex. This finding is in line with the concept of an inverted-U-shaped response for dopamine-related tDCS effects on neuroplasticity.3939. Monte-Silva K, Liebetanz D, Grundey J, Paulus W, Nitsche MA. Dosage-dependent non-linear effect of L-dopa on human motor cortex plasticity. J Physiol. 2010;588:3415-24. However, mixed effects of the COMT influence on tDCS effects in cognitive functioning have been reported.4040. Jongkees BJ, Loseva AA, Yavari FB, Nitsche MA, Colzato LS. The COMT Val158 Met polymorphism does not modulate the after-effect of tDCS on working memory. Eur J Neurosci. 2019;49:263-74.,4141. Stephens JA, Jones KT, Berryhill ME. Task demands, tDCS intensity, and the COMT val158met polymorphism impact tDCS-linked working memory training gains. Sci Rep. 2017;7:13463. In a recent tDCS trial in depression, COMT did not predict antidepressant effects of tDCS2929. Martin DM, McClintock SM, Aaronson ST, Alonzo A, Husain MM, Lisanby SH, et al. Pre-treatment attentional processing speed and antidepressant response to transcranial direct current stimulation: results from an international randomized controlled trial. Brain Stimul. 2018;11:1282-90.; however, no main effects of tDCS were observed in that study.99. Loo CK, Husain MM, McDonald WM, Aaronson S, O'Reardon JP, Alonzo A, et al. International randomized-controlled trial of transcranial direct current stimulation in depression. Brain Stimul. 2018;11:125-33. Here, our results pointed out to a nonsignificant trend of dose-dependent effects of the A (Met) allele and lower tDCS vs. placebo effects. Possibly, higher dopaminergic activity decreased tDCS effects by shifting the U-dose dopamine curve beyond optimal activity. Another possible explanation for our finding is a greater placebo effect associated with higher dopaminergic activity, as observed in studies of Parkinson’s disease.4242. de la Fuente-Fernández R, Schulzer M, Stoessl AJ. Placebo mechanisms and reward circuitry: clues from Parkinson’s disease. Biol Psychiatry. 2004;56:67-71.

The TPH1 gene regulates serotonin availability and, therefore, has been investigated as a predictor of response to antidepressant drugs, particularly SSRIs. Although a meta-analysis suggested that this SNP could modulate antidepressant response,1717. Kato M, Serretti A. Review and meta-analysis of antidepressant pharmacogenetic findings in major depressive disorder. Mol Psychiatry. 2010;15:473-500. a more recent, updated meta-analysis including 12 individual studies and the STAR*D trial4343. Gaynes BN, Rush AJ, Trivedi MH, Wisniewski SR, Spencer D, Fava M. The STAR*D study: treating depression in the real world. Cleve Clin J Med. 2008;75:57-66. found that the SNP was not associated with antidepressant response, regardless of ethnicity, type of antidepressant drug, or an interaction between these variables.4444. Zhao X, Huang Y, Li D, Han C, Kan Q. Association between the TPH1 A218C polymorphism and antidepressant response: evidence from an updated ethnicity, antidepressant-specific, and ethnicity--antidepressant interaction meta-analysis. Psychiatr Genet. 2015;25:1-8. In our study, the G allele was associated with greater escitalopram effects, in line with previous studies.1717. Kato M, Serretti A. Review and meta-analysis of antidepressant pharmacogenetic findings in major depressive disorder. Mol Psychiatry. 2010;15:473-500.

Regarding the BDNF gene, the rs6265 polymorphism determines a substitution of Val66 for Met. Although the Met allele is associated with changes in brain anatomy, memory, and behavior in experimental animals,4545. Chen ZY, Jing D, Bath KG, Ieraci A, Khan T, Siao CJ, et al. Genetic variant BDNF (Val66Met) polymorphism alters anxiety-related behavior. Science. 2006;314:140-3. its role in antidepressant drug response is controversial. Although one meta-analysis demonstrated that Met/Met and Val/Met genotypes were associated with clinical response,1717. Kato M, Serretti A. Review and meta-analysis of antidepressant pharmacogenetic findings in major depressive disorder. Mol Psychiatry. 2010;15:473-500. another study showed association only with the Val/Met genotype,4646. Zou YF, Ye DQ, Feng XL, Su H, Pan FM, Liao FF. Meta-analysis of BDNF Val66Met polymorphism association with treatment response in patients with major depressive disorder. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2010;20:535-44. whereas another one showed no association.4747. Domschke K, Lawford B, Laje G, Berger K, Young R, Morris P, et al. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene: no major impact on antidepressant treatment response. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2010;13:93-101. On the other hand, a study with rTMS4848. Bocchio-Chiavetto L, Miniussi C, Zanardini R, Gazzoli A, Bignotti S, Specchia C, et al. 5-HTTLPR and BDNF Val66Met polymorphisms and response to rTMS treatment in drug resistant depression. Neurosci Lett. 2008;437:130-4. showed an association between Val/Val and depression improvement in 36 patients. Regarding tDCS, the present study and two previous clinical trials showed no association between rs6265 and clinical response to tDCS.99. Loo CK, Husain MM, McDonald WM, Aaronson S, O'Reardon JP, Alonzo A, et al. International randomized-controlled trial of transcranial direct current stimulation in depression. Brain Stimul. 2018;11:125-33.,2323. Brunoni AR, Kemp AH, Shiozawa P, Cordeiro Q, Valiengo LC, Goulart AC, et al. Impact of 5-HTTLPR and BDNF polymorphisms on response to sertraline versus transcranial direct current stimulation: Implications for the serotonergic system. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2013;23:1530-40. Moreover, several studies showed that BDNF plasma levels do not increase after tDCS treatment in depression.3232. Brunoni AR, Padberg F, Vieira EL, Teixeira AL, Carvalho AF, Lotufo PA, et al. Plasma biomarkers in a placebo-controlled trial comparing tDCS and escitalopram efficacy in major depression. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2018;86:211-7.,4949. Brunoni AR, Machado-Vieira R, Zarate CA Jr, Vieira EL, Vanderhasselt MA, Nitsche MA, et al. BDNF plasma levels after antidepressant treatment with sertraline and transcranial direct current stimulation: Results from a factorial, randomized, sham-controlled trial. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2014;24:1144-51.

50. Brunoni AR, Baeken C, Machado-Vieira R, Gattaz WF, Vanderhasselt MA. BDNF blood levels after non-invasive brain stimulation interventions in major depressive disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. World J Biol Psychiatry. 2015;16:114-22.
-5151. Palm U, Fintescu Z, Obermeier M, Schiller C, Reisinger E, Keeser D, et al. Serum levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor are unchanged after transcranial direct current stimulation in treatment-resistant depression. J Affect Disord. 2013;150:659-63.

Regarding the SLC6A4 serotonin transporter polymorphism studied herein, the short allele (s) is related to lower availability and activity of the serotonin transporter compared to its long form. In fact, subjects with the s allele display worse clinical response to SSRIs, probably because the efficacy of SSRIs decreases when the serotonin transporter is not functioning optimally.5252. Serretti A, Kato M, De Ronchi D, Kinoshita T. Meta-analysis of serotonin transporter gene promoter polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) association with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor efficacy in depressed patients. Mol Psychiatry. 2007;12:247-57. In an earlier study, we found a significant antidepressant effect of tDCS vs. placebo for long-arm carriers, although the result was not conclusive, since the SNP effects on tDCS response (not considering placebo effects) were not significant.2323. Brunoni AR, Kemp AH, Shiozawa P, Cordeiro Q, Valiengo LC, Goulart AC, et al. Impact of 5-HTTLPR and BDNF polymorphisms on response to sertraline versus transcranial direct current stimulation: Implications for the serotonergic system. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2013;23:1530-40. For rTMS, the LL genotype has been associated with greater antidepressant effects.5353. Silverstein WK, Noda Y, Barr MS, Vila-Rodriguez F, Rajji TK, Fitzgerald PB, et al. Neurobiological predictors of response to dorsolateral prefrontal cortex repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation in depression: a systematic review. Depress Anxiety. 2015;32:871-91.

Regarding the HTR2A polymorphisms, no association was observed between any of the three investigated SNPs and escitalopram or tDCS response. In a recent meta-analysis, these three polymorphisms were associated with antidepressant response in both allele- and genotype-wise analyses in depression.5454. Lin JY, Jiang MY, Kan ZM, Chu Y. Influence of 5-HTR2A genetic polymorphisms on the efficacy of antidepressants in the treatment of major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis. J Affect Disord. 2014;168:430-8. Therefore, the lack of observed effects might be explained by our small sample size.

Some limitations of this study must be underscored. First, although ELECT-TDCS used an adequately powered sample for its primary outcome, SNPs analyses were exploratory outcomes and therefore were likely to be underpowered. Noninvasive brain stimulation (NIBS) studies usually recruit smaller sample sizes than pharmacological trials, as treatment is delivered daily, for several weeks, at the study center. To overcome this limitation, clinical trials of tDCS could collect SNP data to be further combined using meta-analytic techniques, as was done recently for clinical and cognitive outcomes.5555. Brunoni AR, Moffa AH, Fregni F, Palm U, Padberg F, Blumberger DM, et al. Transcranial direct current stimulation for acute major depressive episodes: meta-analysis of individual patient data. Br J Psychiatry. 2016;208:522-31.,5656. Martin DM, Moffa A, Nikolin S, Bennabi D, Brunoni AR, Flannery W, et al. Cognitive effects of transcranial direct current stimulation treatment in patients with major depressive disorder: an individual patient data meta-analysis of randomised, sham-controlled trials. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2018;90:137-45. Second, we could only evaluate the role of self-reported ethnicity on tDCS clinical response in our sample, not of ancestry. This is a significant limitation, as Brazilian population has a very mixed ancestry; therefore, self-declared or directly observed physical phenotype correlate poorly with genomic ancestry.5757. Parra FC, Amado RC, Lambertucci JR, Rocha J, Antunes CM, Pena SD. Color and genomic ancestry in Brazilians. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003;100:177-82. Third, several other SNPs associated with antidepressant response (e.g., in HTR1A, HTR1B) were not investigated, as we restricted our analyses to SNPs determined a priori in our study protocol and to the COMT polymorphism. Therefore, further studies should explore the impact of additional SNPs on tDCS response. Finally, our sample was composed of individuals who were antidepressant-free at baseline and received a specific tDCS regimen. Therefore, we cannot extrapolate these findings to other tDCS protocols, including designs in which subjects receive tDCS combined with other pharmacotherapeutic or non-pharmacotherapeutic interventions.

In conclusion, this ancillary study of ELECT-TDCS investigated whether a series of SNPs related to neuroplasticity and serotonin metabolism (selected a priori) were associated with antidepressant response to tDCS. Post-hoc, we also investigated whether a COMT polymorphism was associated with tDCS response. The nonsignificant effects observed in our study are probably explained by our low sample size. To increase statistical power and draw definite conclusions, other trials investigating tDCS in depression should explore the impact of these and other SNPs on antidepressant response.

Acknowledgements

This study was primarily supported by a grant from Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP), Programa Jovens Pesquisadores em Centros Emergentes (grant 2012/20911-5) and from Brain and Behavior (Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Affective Disorders [NARSAD]), Young Investigator (grant 2013/20493). ARB is a former recipient of a Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES)/Alexander von Humboldt fellowship award for experienced researchers and current recipient of a Returning Fellowship from the Humboldt Foundation, as well as a scholarship from the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq). Laboratório de Neurociências receives financial support from the Associação Beneficente Alzira Denise Hertzog da Silva and the CAPES/Institutos Nacionais de Ciências e Tecnologia (INCT) program via the Instituto Nacional de Biomarcadores em Neuropsiquiatria (INBioN).

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Publication Dates

  • Publication in this collection
    11 Nov 2019
  • Date of issue
    Mar-Apr 2020

History

  • Received
    22 July 2019
  • Accepted
    20 Aug 2019
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