Treatment with the dopamine D2/D3 receptor agonist pramipexole has demonstrated promising clinical effects in patients with depression. However, the mechanisms through which pramipexole might alleviate depressive symptoms are currently not well understood. Conventional antidepressant drugs are thought to work by biasing the processing of emotional information in favour of positive relative to negative appraisal. In this study, we used an established experimental medicine assay to explore whether pramipexole treatment might have a similar effect. Employing a double-blind, parallel-group design, 40 healthy volunteers (aged 18 to 43 years, 50% female) were randomly allocated to 12 to 15 days of treatment with either pramipexole (at a peak daily dose of 1.0 mg pramipexole salt) or placebo. After treatment was established, emotional information processing was assessed on the neural level by measuring amygdala activity in response to positive and negative facial emotional expressions, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In addition, behavioural measures of emotional information processing were collected at baseline and on drug, using an established computerized task battery, tapping into different cognitive domains. As predicted, pramipexole-treated participants, compared to those receiving placebo, showed decreased neural activity in response to negative (fearful) vs. positive (happy) facial expressions in bilateral amygdala. Contrary to our predictions, however, pramipexole treatment had no significant antidepressant-like effect on behavioural measures of emotional processing. This study provides the first experimental evidence that subacute pramipexole treatment in healthy volunteers modifies neural responses to emotional information in a manner that resembles the effects of conventional antidepressant drugs.
affective information processing, antidepressant, depression, dopamine, emotion, emotional information processing, neuroimaging, pramipexole