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Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences


Objective: The Vagal-Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) theory proposes that some yoga postures and breathing practices exert their effects through stimulation of vagal nerves (parasympathetic system) with associated brain GABA increases. To evaluate this theory, we compared results from a 12-week randomized controlled trial (RCT) of yoga in participants with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) with those of a similar RCT in healthy control participants (HC).

Methods: In an RCT, magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) and mood measures were acquired in subjects with MDD (n=15) prior to and following a 12-week yoga intervention. The same measures were obtained in the HC (n=17) group. In both studies, thalamic GABA/Creatine was obtained using MEGAPRESS at 4 Telsa at baseline (Scan-1), post-intervention (Scan-2), and immediately following a yoga session (Scan-3). Clinical scales were completed prior to each scan.

Results: The MDD-group had significantly lower GABA compared to the HC at baseline (Scan-1, p=0.001), but not after 12 weeks of yoga, either before (Scan-2, p=0.12) or after a yoga session (Scan-3, p=0.20). Depressive symptoms decreased significantly in the MDD-group (p=0.0001), and anxiety improved in both groups.

Conclusion: After a 12-week yoga intervention, MDD-group mood and anxiety measures improved with scores equivalent to those of non-depressed individuals. This study provides the first evidence of brain GABA increases associated with specific yoga postures and breathing practices in MDD. These results suggest potential benefits of specific yoga postures and breathing practices as monotherapy or augmentation to other treatments to reduce anxiety and depression in MDD.

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