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New study finds physical differences in depressed brains

Depression’s easy to dismiss. Everybody has bad moods, right? People have bad days, get sad, and feel blue, so what makes depression different from your ordinary, workaday bad mood? Plenty.

Depression, often called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, is a real disease. According to Mayo Clinic, it can also have negative effects on one’s social life and career.

Although depression’s causes aren’t precisely known, researchers have known there are certain physical differences in the brains of depressed people. A new study conducted by University College, London, (UCL) is shedding new light on those physical differences.

Differences in brain function

In the study, the UCL researchers conducted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of 25 people with depression as well as 25 people who had never had depression symptoms. While the subjects were in the MRI machines, they were shown a series of abstract pictures. As the study went on, the subjects began to associate the images with positive outcomes or negative outcomes – including electric shocks.

When the subjects with no depression viewed the kinds of images that resulted in them receiving electric shocks, the MRI revealed increased activity in a region of their brain called the habenula, a structure of the brain involved in governing stress responses, learning, sleep cycles and other vital functions.

However, in the depressed subjects’ brains, the MRI scans showed decreased levels of activity in their habenulae. “A prominent theory has suggested that a hyperactive habenula drives symptoms in people with depression: We set out to test that hypothesis. Surprisingly, we saw the exact opposite of what we predicted,” said study senior author and UCL professor Jonathan Roiser, Ph.D., in a UCL press release.

There were other physical differences as well – although there was no difference in the average habenula size between the two groups, subjects with smaller habenulae in both groups experienced more symptoms of anhedonia, a lack of ability to experience pleasure.

In the UCL press release, study co-author Rebecca Lawson, Ph.D., said “The habenula’s role in depression is clearly much more complex than previously thought … the habenula may help us to avoid dwelling on unpleasant thoughts or memories, and when this is disrupted you get the excessive negative focus that is common in depression.”

Types of depression

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, there are a variety of depressive disorders:

  • Bipolar disorder – Although patients with this disorder can experience extreme emotional highs, they also experience periods of extreme lows, which meet the diagnostic criteria for depression.
  • Perinatal depression – Far more serious than the normal “baby blues” that occur after giving birth, this disorder causes women to experience major depression after or even during delivery.
  • Persistent depressive disorder – Also known as dysthymia, this disorder is a depressed mood that lasts for at least two years. Patients with this disorder can have major depressive episodes along with periods of less-serious symptoms.
  • Psychotic depression – In this disorder, patients experience both major depression as well as a form of psychosis, including delusions and hallucinations.
  • Seasonal affective disorder – Occurring during the winter months when there is less natural light, this disorder tends to lessen during spring and summer. Patients often experience sleep difficulties and weight gain during the winter.

Finding treatment

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people aged between 15 and 44. It’s a treatable disease that affects nearly 15 million adults each year. Unfortunately, it also frequently goes untreated; the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance says 2 out of 3 people with depressive symptoms never receive treatment.

The ADAA also reports around 20 percent of people with mood disorders like depression also have a substance use disorder. The combination of the two disorders – known as a “dual diagnosis” can be devastating for a person’s career and overall quality of life. Sovereign Health of Texas is an expert care provider specializing in dual diagnoses. Our El Paso facility offers effective treatment for substance use disorders while treating any underlying problems that may be driving the substance use. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at news@sovhealth.com.

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