Have you ever wondered how depression can affect your body? What is the structure of our brain that makes us feel like this? Is it our fault or is it just a biological defect? Interestingly, new studies suggest that our brain structure and function can be altered by the presence of depression in our bodies.
There is a lot of debate about whether depression alters brain structure. While there are several studies that indicate that depression does not alter the brain, there are many more that suggest otherwise. In fact, one of the most recent studies on the topic suggests that depression actually causes changes to brain structure via epigenetics.
It’s important to note, however, that no matter how many thousands of brains researchers look at – and no matter how many millions of dollars get spent on the study – there will never be two brains that are exactly alike. It would simply be impossible for this to occur naturally. Each person is unique and so is his/her brain structure. This being said, it is still possible to analyze a large number of brains in order to determine whether or not one particular condition (depression) has any effect on brain structure.
Here are 9 ways in which depression can alter our brain structure:
- Depression Can Cause Neurogenesis
There is a lot of evidence which suggests that you can grow new neurons (neurogenesis) and improve your mood by doing things such as exercising and taking antidepressants. This can also reverse some of the damage which has been caused by depression.
But this leads to a decrease in the number of connections between brain cells. Although antidepressant medication helps people with depression, it does so by stopping the production of new brain cells which can cause structural damage to the hippocampus.
- Depression Can Cause Inflammation in The Brain
The researchers found that depression caused an inflammatory response in the body — specifically, an increase in interleukin-6 (IL-6), a cellular component of the immune system that is implicated in inflammation. This inflammation, they said, is what causes cognitive impairment in patients with depression.
Drevets explained that this is the first time it has been shown that the inflammatory response itself — and not just the symptoms of depression like poor sleep or eating habits — contributes to cognitive problems.
- Major Depressive Disorder Is Associated With A Less Dense Hippocampus
The hippocampus is the area of the brain that helps us remember and it also has a key role in maintaining our emotions. As people with depression have a tendency to ruminate over their thoughts, they tend to evoke negative memories that could affect the way they process and understand feelings. As a result, they start to feel less emotion and lose interest in things they once enjoyed. This would, in turn, lead to more depressive episodes and problems with memory, thus creating a cycle of depression.
According to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, compared to those who are not depressed or have other mental illnesses, those with major depressive disorder show reduced hippocampal volume (a measure of the density of brain tissue).
This means that having a history of depression may lead to reduced hippocampal volume and cause them to experience more depressive symptoms.
- It Alters Serotonin Levels
Serotonin is a chemical that functions as a neurotransmitter, which is a type of chemical that carries signals between neurons (nerve cells). Serotonin levels are known to be altered in people with depression.
Low serotonin levels are believed to be the reason for some of the symptoms of depression, such as an inability to focus and lack of sleep, so it's no surprise that antidepressants aim to increase serotonin levels.
Serotonin can influence how you feel, how well you sleep and what you eat. In fact, people who are depressed may not feel like eating at all or may overeat because they're trying to alleviate their symptoms through food. Low levels of serotonin are also associated with pain, so those who suffer from depression may be more sensitive to certain types of pain than those who don't have the condition.
Low serotonin levels have also been linked to other conditions that may co-occur with depression, such as obesity and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Your amygdala gets larger
Depression is associated with decreased activity in the left frontal lobe, where positive emotions are generated. Depressed people also have increased activity in the right frontal lobe, where negative emotions are generated. This manifests in the people's behavior as more cynicism, pessimism and self-criticism.
One of these changes is an enlargement of the amygdala, which causes increased alertness to threats and more fearful reactions. Your amygdala is the part of your brain responsible for processing emotions like fear and pleasure, as well as storing emotional memories of events where you’ve experienced intense emotion before. Studies have shown that people with anxiety and depression often have an enlarged amygdala. The result is a person who is constantly on guard for bad things to happen — a hallmark of depression.
- Cell distribution
A new study has shown that depression can affect cell distribution in the brain, altering the size and density of various regions.
There are several theories surrounding the
Previous research has already shown that people with depression have abnormalities in their stress hormone systems and immune systems, which affect gene expression. This may result in alterations to cells in the brain known as glial cells, which support neurons and regulate communication between them.
Brain scans show that depressed people have fewer cells in their prefrontal cortexes than healthy people do. This part of the brain is involved in decision making and problem solving. The fewer cells there are in this area, the worse a person's ability to make decisions and solve problems can be. This finding could explain why depressed people often feel stuck when making even simple decisions like what to eat for lunch or which shirt to wear.
- Cell connectivity
In a study published in Science Advances, researchers have identified a previously unknown mechanism that can cause the loss of connections between neurons, which is associated with depression.
The team of scientists from the University of California, San Francisco used sophisticated imaging technology to trace connections between neurons and found that without serotonin, some of those connections fell apart. They also discovered that this loss of connections could be reversed by antidepressants.
People think about depression as something that affects our mood, but it's also characterized by widespread changes in brain circuits.
- Affects stress regulation in the brain
The brain is a complex organ. It regulates the body's basic functions, enables the senses and controls behavior. The brain also has its own stress response system. This system helps people handle stressful situations by releasing hormones that prepare the body to react quickly. For instance, the brain's stress response can trigger physical symptoms like sweating and increased heart rate.
In people with depression, the brain's stress response system may not work properly. Researchers believe this could be why people with depression experience higher levels of stress than those who don't have depression. In addition, they often feel more fatigued and have a lower tolerance for stressful situations.
- Alters the Dopamine system
Depression is not just a chemical imbalance in the brain. It's caused by multiple factors. However, the dopamine system is involved in the causes of depression. This system is believed to be involved in reward-motivated behavior and other aspects of emotion.
When dopamine levels are low, it can cause people to feel sad or unmotivated because they don't get the same pleasure from activities they used to enjoy before they were depressed. When they do feel pleasure or happiness, it doesn't last as long as it should. This can lead to depression symptoms like anhedonia — which is a lack of interest in once-pleasurable activities — and a low mood.
Depression affects not only brain functionality and ways of thinking, but the structure of the brain itself. Some parts of the brain can get larger while other parts get smaller. This is what makes it difficult to treat depression and requires multiple types of treatment options. The good thing is that you're able to control your mental state, which influences the structure of your brain. The best way to deal with depression is to start living healthier.
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