White matter hyperintensities on magnetic resonance imaging are increased in major depression in the deep white matter, especially in frontal areas. These lesions have been hypothesized to be ischemic in origin, but there have been no previous neuropathological studies in depression. We investigated the neuropathological basis of these lesions in depression, hypothesizing that they would be more frequently ischemic in origin in depressed subjects.
We carried out in vitro magnetic resonance imaging on 3 slices of brain tissue (2 frontal, 1 occipital) from 20 elderly subjects who had a history of major depression and 20 elderly controls. The films were blindly rated, and sections were prepared for neuropathological analysis from the same slices and stained conventionally and by means of immunohistochemistry for microglia, macrophages, and astroglia. Lesions on the films were identified in the tissue, blindly described neuropathologically, and subsequently divided into ischemic and nonischemic lesions.
All the deep white matter hyperintensities in the depressed group were found to be ischemic, compared with less than a third of those in the control group, a highly significant difference (P<.001). This difference was due to smaller punctate lesions (<3 mm), which were predominantly ischemic in depressed subjects but not in control subjects. Larger lesions were usually ischemic in both groups. Compared with control subjects, ischemic lesions were significantly more likely to be in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex compared with the anterior cingulate cortex (P = .003) and the occipital cortex (P = .01) in the depressed subjects.
Deep white matter hyperintensities are more frequently due to cerebral ischemia, and such ischemic lesions are more frequently located at the level of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in depressed subjects. Our findings strongly support the "vascular depression" hypothesis of late-life depression.