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A Researcher’s Perspective

Is personalized medicine science fiction or can researchers really hope to individualize each patient’s depression treatment to finally do away with treatment by trial-and-error? An innovative new NIMH-funded research study to identify the best treatment based in a person’s unique biology is recruiting patients at four sites nationwide. Depression Evaluation Service (DES) Co-Director Patrick J. McGrath, MD, is a Principal Investigator of a study, Establishing Moderators and Biosignatures of Antidepressant Response for Clinical Care (EMBARC) here at Columbia Psychiatry and is excited about the study’s promise.

“Can we find a way to scientifically select the correct treatment for our patients with depression, without trial and error?” asks Dr. McGrath. For the first 8 weeks of the 16-week study participants will be randomly assigned to receive either an SSRI (Zoloft) or a placebo (sugar pill). After 8 weeks, patients who have not improved on the Zoloft are switched to Wellbutrin for an additional 8 weeks, and those who have not improved on placebo will be switched to Zoloft. Prior to the medication, each participant will do MRI and psychological testing and an EEG, which records electrical signals in the brain. Both the MRI and EEG are done to assess brain function. Blood samples will also be collected for genetic analysis.

“This isn’t the first study to use some of these technologies to look at physiologic differences in people with depression, but it is the first to incorporate a whole battery of them in a single randomized research study of this size,” said Dr. McGrath. Collaborators on the study include Myrna Weissman, PhD, a leading Columbia epidemiologist studying depression; Ramin Parsey, MD, PhD, formerly of our department and now Chairman of Psychiatry at Stony Brook University; and Maria Oquendo, MD, Columbia Psychiatry’s Vice Dean for Education and an active mood disorder researcher.

The results will be eagerly anticipated not only by researchers but patients who have tried multiple medications but found the side effects intolerable or found improvement only after months and months of trial-and-error.

To learn more about the EMBARC study and other studies of depression treatment, call the Depression Evaluation service at 646-774-8000, go online to, or see a video on EMBARC at

To volunteer for a research study at Columbia Psychiatry, call 212-305-6001.


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