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A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical studies on major depression and BDNF levels: implications for the role of neuroplasticity in depression

André Russowsky Brunoni, Mariana Lopes, Felipe Fregni
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1461145708009309 1169-1180 First published online: 1 December 2008


Several clinical studies on major depressive disorder (MDD) have shown that blood brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – a factor used to index neuroplasticity – is associated with depression response; however, the results are mixed. The purpose of our study was to evaluate whether BDNF levels are correlated with improvement of depression. We performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature, searching Medline, Cochrane Central, SciELO databases and reference lists from retrieved articles for clinical studies comparing mean BDNF blood levels in depressed patients pre- and post-antidepressant treatments or comparing depressed patients with healthy controls. Two reviewers independently searched for eligible studies and extracted outcome data using a structured form previously elaborated. Twenty articles, including 1504 subjects, met our inclusion criteria. The results showed that BDNF levels increased significantly after antidepressant treatment (effect size 0.62, 95% CI 0.36–0.88, random effects model). In addition, there was a significant correlation between changes in BDNF level and depression scores changes (p=0.02). Moreover, the results were robust according to the sensitivity analysis and Begg's funnel plot results did not suggest publication bias. Finally, there was a difference between pre-treatment patients and healthy controls (effect size 0.91, 95% CI 0.70–1.11) and a small but significant difference between treated patients and healthy controls (effect size 0.34, 95% CI 0.02–0.66). Our results show that BDNF levels are associated with clinical changes in depression; supporting the notion that depression improvement is associated with neuroplastic changes.

Key words
  • Blood levels
  • brain-derived neurotrophic factor
  • major depressive disorder
  • meta-analysis
  • neuroplasticity
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