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4 Ways Depression Affects the Brain

It’s estimated that 16.2 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2016.

While depression can affect a person psychologically, it also has the potential to affect physical structures in the brain. These physical changes range from inflammation and oxygen restriction, to actual shrinking.

In short, depression can impact the central control center of your nervous system.

For those interested in learning more about how depression can affect the physical brain, and ways to potentially avoid these changes, we’ve laid it all out for you.

Brain shrinkage

The latest research shows that the size of specific brain regions can decrease in people who experience depression.

Researchers continue to debate which regions of the brain can shrink due to depression and by how much. But current studies have shown that the following parts of the brain can be affected:

  • hippocampus
  • thalamus
  • amygdala
  • frontal
  • prefrontal cortices

The amount these areas shrink is linked to the severity and length the depressive episode lasts.

In the hippocampus, for example, noticeable changes can occur anywhere from 8 months to a year during a single bout of depression or multiple, shorter episodes.

That said, when a section of the brain shrinks, so do the functions associated with that particular section.

For instance, the prefrontal cortex and amygdala work together to control emotional responses and the recognition of emotional cues in other people. This can potentially contribute to a reduction in empathy in individuals who have postpartum depression (PPD).

Brain inflammation

There are also new links being made between inflammation and depression. It’s still not clear, however, whether inflammation causes depression or vice versa.

But brain inflammation during depression is linked to the amount of time a person has been depressed. One recent study showed that people depressed for more than 10 years showed 30 percent more inflammation compared to people depressed for less time.

As a result, significant brain inflammation is more likely to be relevant in persistent depressive disorder.

Because brain inflammation can cause the cells of the brain to die, this can lead to a number of complications, including:

  • shrinkage (discussed above)
  • decreased function of neurotransmitters
  • reduced ability of the brain to change as the person ages (neuroplasticity)

Together these can lead to dysfunctions in:

  • brain development
  • learning
  • memory
  • mood

Oxygen restriction

Depression has been linked to reduced oxygen in the body. These changes may be due to changes in breathing caused by depression — but which comes first and causes the other remains unknown.

A cellular factor produced in response to the brain not getting enough oxygen (hypoxia) is elevated in specific immune cells found in people with major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

Overall, the brain is highly sensitive to reductions in oxygen, which can lead to:

  • inflammation
  • brain cell injury
  • brain cell death

As we’ve learned, inflammation and cell death can lead to a host of symptoms associated with development, learning, memory, and mood. Even short-term hypoxia can lead to confusion, much like what’s observed with high altitude hikers.

But hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatments, which increase oxygen circulation, have been shown to relieve symptoms of depression in humans.

Structural and connective changes

The effects of depression on the brain also can result in structural and connective changes.

These include:

  • Reduced functionality of the hippocampus. This can result in memory impairment.
  • Reduced functionality of the prefrontal cortex. This can result in preventing the person from getting things done (executive function) and affect their attention.
  • Reduced functionality of the amygdala. This can directly affect mood and emotional regulation.

Changes typically take a minimum of eight months to develop.

The potential for persisting dysfunction in memory, executive function, attention, mood, and emotional regulation does exist after bouts of longer-lasting depression.

Suicide prevention

  • If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:
  • • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.
  • If you or someone you know is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

How can I help prevent these changes?

While there are a number of ways to treat symptoms of depression, these steps have the potential to also prevent or minimize the changes listed above.

A few examples include:

Asking for help

It’s very important to be willing to ask for help. Unfortunately, the stigma around mental illnesses is a major obstacle to people getting help, especially among men.

When we understand that depression is a physical disease — as we’ve shown above — it can help society move away from these stigmas.

If you have depression, remember that it’s not your fault and you’re not alone.

Cognitive and group therapy, especially those incorporating stress-relieving mindfulness techniques, can be a great resource for finding support and overcoming these stigmas. They’ve even been shown to help treat the symptoms of depression.

Reducing your stress

If you’re not currently depressed, the best way to prevent these brain changes is to prevent the onset of a depressive episode.

There’s considerable evidence linking psychological stress to the initiation of depressive episodes in many forms of depression.

Simply asking someone to decrease the amount of stress in their life can seem impossible or daunting — but there are actually some simple and shortchanges that you can make to help reduce your stress.

Written by Sarah Wilson, PhD

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