UA researcher John Allen has identified a pattern of brain electrical activity over the frontal lobes that is altered not only in depressed people but also in those thought to be at risk for depression, compared to never-depressed individuals.
UA researcher John Allen has identified a pattern of brain electrical activity over the frontal lobes that is altered not only in depressed people but also in those thought to be at risk for depression, compared to never-depressed individuals.

UA Psychologist Earns Award for Work on Depression

Psychophysiologist John Allen's studies in causes of, and treatments for, clinical depression have earned him the prestigious Humboldt Research Award and the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in Germany.
Dec. 12, 2016
John Allen
John Allen

John Allen, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, has received the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation's Humboldt Research Award in recognition of his contributions to the field of psychophysiology, which focuses on interactions of the mind and body.

The Humboldt Foundation grants this award every year to up to 100 researchers whose fundamental discoveries or insights have had a significant impact on their discipline. Humboldt Research Award winners, including Allen, are invited to spend up to one year collaborating with colleagues in Germany.

"I am honored to receive this award, which is for my work to date and my promise in the future," Allen said. "None of that would be possible without collaborations both in and outside of the UA."

"I am proud of the novel work that Dr. Allen is doing in the field of psychology, and thrilled to see the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation recognizing his achievements so deservedly," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, UA senior vice president for research. "The Humboldt Research Award is a key marker of the quality and innovation of the research done by faculty at the UA." 

Allen's work, dating to his time as an undergraduate researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, takes a psychophysiological approach to mood disorders such as clinical depression. His research aims at improving our ability to individualize patient treatments.

Today, a patient is diagnosed with major depressive disorder if they have experienced at least five of nine symptoms for most of the day, nearly every day, for a period of at least two weeks. Symptoms include changes in mood, energy, appetite, sleep and thinking.

According to Allen, depression is "differentiated from a few days of feeling bad, or a little down," but it's not uncommon. At any point in time, about 6 percent of the population has clinical levels of depression. In their lifetime, roughly 11 percent of men and 21 percent of women will experience a major depressive episode.

"Depression can be quite debilitating, and for many people it is not a one-time episode," Allen said. Once a person has had one episode, there is a 50 percent chance that they will have another.

While research in psychology has shown that several versions of psychotherapy and medications can be effective in treating depression, it generally isn't easy to quickly identify the right treatment for any given patient.

"Unfortunately, we don't know a priori how to identify what treatment will work for what person," Allen said. "This is made more complicated because any two people with depression may have very different symptom patterns and, in fact, may not share a single feature in common.

"There are many different manifestations of clinical depression, and they probably represent different underlying neural vulnerabilities. So it would be nice to be able to identify those specific vulnerabilities and then devise treatments for them."

In health sciences, this idea is called precision medicine. Doctors use an individual patient's environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors to inform the selection of treatments. Allen would like to see psychology and psychiatry take a similar approach, and he hopes his research will contribute to this vision.

He is working toward more precise diagnoses and treatments of depression by studying electrical activity in the brains of both depressed and healthy people. Specifically, Allen focuses on activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, located right behind the forehead. This region of the brain is associated with many important functions that can go awry in mental disorders such as depression. 

Allen has identified a pattern of brain electrical activity over the frontal lobes that is altered not only in depressed people, but also in those thought to be at risk for depression, compared to never-depressed individuals. People who are at risk for depression show less left than right frontal activity.

This asymmetrical electrical activity over the frontal lobe can be used as biomarker of depression risk. If an electroencephalogram reveals this particular pattern in a person's brain electrical activity, then he or she is likely at risk for depression.

Allen's work has provided the field with a method for assessing this biomarker, as well as clarity on its psychological significance.

Allen also is researching transcranial ultrasound, a technique that possibly could be used to treat and prevent depression. Ultrasound, such as that used in medical imaging, is delivered over the temple in small doses, and work to date shows this improves mood over the next 30 to 60 minutes in healthy individuals. The research is in its early stages, with Allen currently planning a clinical trial.

Allen's work with frontal EEG asymmetry and transcranial ultrasound is novel, and thus far both show promise in research studies that he hopes will one day translate to improved patient care and quality of life.

"I was ecstatic, and surprised, and very honored that my colleague Johannes Hewig nominated me for the Humboldt Research Award," Allen said. "I was visiting him last month, and I walked into his office, and he said — with a little smile on his face — 'I have some news,' and motions me over to his computer. There, in German, was a letter saying my name and the Humboldt award."

Allen will spend six months in Germany working with Hewig on psychophysiological research starting next summer.