How Depression Can Damage the Brain
We all feel blue from time to time. Life can deal you some pretty good blows, so it happens to everyone. The only thing that wouldn’t be normal is if someone felt happy ALL the time.
And the occasional mood slump isn’t a big deal. If it becomes a trend, however, it can have serious effects on our mental health.
Scientists have found that depression can damage the brain.
For a long time scientists have been aware of a link between brain shrinkage and depression. To have it possibly alter the structure of our brain is a potentially serious issue. So researchers took a harder look at the problem.
The research – published in Molecular Psychiatry – has proven that recurrent depression shrinks an area of the brain called the hippocampus. Until now, they weren’t sure if the brain shrinkage was the cause of depression, or simply a factor of it.
In a collaboration of data from Australia, Europe and the US, brain scans on almost 9,000 people were gathered. Over 1,700 people with major depressive symptoms and almost 7,200 healthy individuals were combined for analysis to study the association between brain volume and depression.
When looking at the vast array of brain pictures, they noticed that one area was particularly vulnerable. The hippocampus.
The hippocampus is an important part of the formation of new memories and also part of our emotional system. It’s how we make sense of the world.
The real damage doesn’t seem to come from a single episode. The problem seems to arrive when the condition happens repeatedly over a period of time. The worst damage was seen in younger adults under the age of 21.
Ian Hickie, a co-author on the study, stated:
“It puts the emphasis then on early identification of the more severe persistent or recurrent cases. Importantly, in early identification systems you have to stick with those in who it persists or is recurrent, because they’re the ones who will be most harmed from a brain point of view.”
But it’s not all gloomy news, there is hope. The experts are quick to point out that these effects are reversible with proper treatment for the individual.
It’s not the first time that reduced brain structure has been linked with depression.
Research in 2011 was published in Biological Psychiatry which noticed hippocampul shrinkage in the elderly. They followed a large population of older adults for 10 years with follow up scans. The scientists found that a smaller hippocampus didn’t increase risk for depression, but that the volume did shrink in depressed individuals.
In kids, another region of the brain also had structural changes. Jama Psychiatry published a study in November 2014 that saw a region of the brain – called the insula – which was noticeably smaller in kids that had been diagnosed with depression. The likely cause pointed to depression and guilt.
Depression By the Numbers
In 2012 the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that about 7% of people in the US had at least one bout of major depression in the previous year. That comes to about 16 million people. That included 8% of young adults from the ages of 18-22 which had a case of major depression.
Depression just isn’t a worry in the United states. According to the World Health Organization there are 350 million people in the world that get depression.
All in all, that’s a significant amount of people. It’s one of the most common mental problems, but also one of the most treatable.
Vigilance is Key
Thinking about how depression can damage our brain is, well……depressing.
Even though it’s a natural phenomenon, we should be cautious. Especially for kids, teens, and young adults when must watch that it doesn’t turn into a pattern, or turn into major depression.
Professor Hickie noted the significance of the research saying:
“This large study confirms the need to treat first episodes of depression effectively, particularly in teenagers and young adults, to prevent the brain changes that accompany recurrent depression.”
So remain vigilant, as it can have lasting effects for people of any age.
Image: Lloyd Morgan