How Depression Changes the Brain

Researchers are still developing an understanding of how depression changes the brain. From inflammation to neurological changes, here’s everything we know.

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Some people call it “the lows,” others referred to it as “the blues,” and there are a select few that call it “the bottom of the pit.” There are many names for it and yet they’re all referring to the same state of being: Depression.

So, depression is everywhere and seemingly everyone gets “the blues” from time to time, but what is really? That’s exactly what we intend to discuss as well as the symptoms of depression and how the disease affects your brain chemistry.

What is Depression?

Depression is a state of being in which you find yourself living in a pattern of sadness for an extensive period of time. The Mayo Clinic has cited depression as a “mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.” ¹

Most professionals reasonably diagnose patients with depression when said patient, “experience at least five depression symptoms, once a day, for at least two weeks.” Although depression isn’t completely curable, there are methods and means to treating the symptoms and helping the patient have a more fulfilling life.

What are the Symptoms of Depression?

The symptoms of depression and depression related mental illnesses can vary from person to person but the most common symptoms are:

  • Overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, apathy or emptiness.
  • Increase in incidents of frustration, aggression or irritability over small matters.
  • Loss of interests, hobbies, relationships or activities that the sufferer once found enjoyable and routine
  • Routine fatigue or lack on overall energy
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
  • Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide
  • Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches

What Causes Depression?

Depression can have many causations as to how it manifests and of course, like the symptoms, the causes is different from person to person. However the major causes for depression, according to Healthline, are:

  • Genetic Factors – There are a segment of patients that are more likely to develop depression related mood disorders due to their genetic makeup. Most of this is found through a link of biological family history of suffering depressive disorders.
  • Biochemical Reactions – Occurs within the brains of those that suffer from Major Depressive Disorder wherein the chemicals within the brain react and function differently from those who don’t suffer from MDD.
  • Hormone Imbalances – A hormonal imbalance happens when there is too much or too little of a hormone in the bloodstream. Because of their essential role in the body, even small hormonal imbalances can cause side effects throughout the body. If there is a hormonal imbalance, it is common to develop different mental illnesses and disorders, including Major Depressive Disorder.
  • Pregnancy & Menopause in Women – There are some female patients that have developed a specific depressive mood disorder- postpartum depression- during pregnancy or shortly after birth. It is also common for older women to experience depression-related symptoms during menopause.

Can Depression Affect the Brain?

When we talk about depression and its related symptoms, we often think of the emotional and mental repercussions. However, there are physical ramifications that can occur and leads to permanent changes within the brain.

Depression Physically Shrinks the Brain

When researchers and medical professionals look at how depression and depressive-related disorders affect the sufferer over a long period of time, they can point to apparent degradation of the brain as one of the most alarming damage that these kinds of illnesses can do.

Degradation of the brain is more commonly referred to as brain shrinkage, wherein the brain actually physically shrinks due to the longterm effects of depression. While some experts still argue which portions of the brain is most affected by this shrinkage the major sections affected are:

  • The hippocampus
  • The thalamus
  • The Amygdala
  • The Frontal Cortex
  • Prefrontal Cortices

A 2018 study done by the Journal of Neural Transmission found that the volume of brain matter changes in those that suffer from a major depressive disorder. They found that, “patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) exhibit gray matter volume (GMV) reductions in limbic regions” in their brains. ²

To further these claims, another study found relatable results with the discovery that the changes occurred during depressive episodes and the duration of brain matter shifts were dependent on how long the particular depressive episode lasted.

Depression Causes Brain Inflammation

Not only did researchers find that the brian undergoes dramatic shifts and reductions in grey matter volume but there have been some researchers that have posited that the brain also experiences flashes of inflammation during depressive episodes.

While the direct link hasn’t truly been found as to which causes which (is the inflammation brought on by the depression or is the depression caused by inflammation?) , there have been studies that have shown an increase of inflammation in the brain in those that are suffering from MDD.

And like the grey matter volume changes, the inflammation surges might also be tied to the duration of a depressive episode. A recent study published in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal revealed that those who suffer from episodic MDD over long periods of time were more likely to suffer from brian inflammation and the longer the patient had been suffering from MDD the greater the percentage of the inflammation within the brain. Their key finding was that, “participants who had untreated major depressive disorder for 10 years or longer, TSPO V T was 29–33% greater in the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula than in participants who were untreated for 9 years or less.” ³

Depression Restricts Oxygen From the Brain

There have been some patients that have complained about oxygenation complications while suffering from MDD episodes. And while this is not a widespread issue, it has been reported in large enough numbers that there have been studies done.

One such study has shown a link between some patients suffering from episodic depression and having oxygen issues like hyperventilation and difficulties in breathing normally. These kinds of oxygenation issues can lead to inflammation, cell injury and even cell death within the brain. Cell injury and death can also stunt brain development and lead to complications with memory and mood.

Depression Changes the Structure and Connections in the Brain

Researchers have found links to how long-term depression affects the way in which depression affects the brain and they have found links to issues with memory, attention, decision-making, and other processing issues. There are also physiological consequences that can last the duration of the depressive episode or longer – sometimes up to years.

Those that struggle with depression or depressive episodes often have complained of having difficulties making decisions as well as having a noticeable dysfunction in their attention.

Studies like this one explored the issues that often plague patients of Major Depression Disorder (MDD for short) which is dysfunction in cogitative functioning like memory, attention, and concentration. They found that those who suffer from depression have a greater risk of degradation in these specific sectors of processing and its likely caused from long term damage done by the depression to the brain and it’s structures. ⁴

This degradation can be seen in in MRIs and CAT scans of the brain which show abnormalities in specific areas of the brain, including the hippocampus (the memory center), the anterior cingulate (the brain’s conflict-resolution area), and the prefrontal cortex (involved with planning and executing activities). ⁵

This damage correlates directly to the common processing related issues that patients often complain about. The complication in a suffers memory can be traced back to how the depression damages the hippocampus. The same can be said for attention and problem solving issues with abnormalities within the structures of the anterior cingulate and the prefrontal cortex.

How You Can Fight Depression

Over time, depression will damage your brain and impair your ability to have proper cognitive functioning. It’s terrible news, but there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel. You can combat this damage to your brain by asking for help and seeking treatment early in the devolvement of a major depressive disorder.

Researchers and professionals have seen marked improvement with patients who have sought treatment options like talk therapy, prescribed medication regimens or alternative options like hypnosis therapies. ⁶

Oftentimes, these methods are paired for optimal results. For example, it isn’t uncommon for a mental health professional to link treatment options like talk therapy, a medication regimen and even an exercise or socializing plan to ensure that their patients receive the most rounded and complete care possible. It has been proven that mixing these methods together provides the patient with a treatment approach that not only treats the underlying depression but also causes the patient to make changes for themselves.

By forcing the depressed sufferer opportunities to exercise not only their minds but their bodies shows the patient that they can overcome challenges and provides them with a feeling of accomplishment which can lead to more promising developments down the road.

The biggest component that ensures success is the patients willingness to try and commit to these changes and having them be involved and working towards their own recovery is a great motivator and often results in long-lasting change.

However, that isn’t to say that the patient have conquered depression, quite the opposite. They’ve learned to cope with the disorder and take control of their lives instead of having the depression take control of them like it probably has been.

Final Word

Depression isn’t something you necessarily deal with and get over. Its a chronic, lifetime illness that has the ability to drop in on the sufferer from time to time, mostly at the most inconvenient of times. However that isn’t to say that if you have depression that your are doomed…

There is help, there are options but it isn’t a walk in the park. You cant just take a pill and have it magically go away. Its an everday battle but with a treatment plan that combines talk therapy, a medication regimen and an exercise plan, you can face your opponent-Depression- on an even footing.

The only way to deter the degradation of the brain is to seek treatment and that has to come from you… You have to raise your hand and call out for help if you are suffering. It might seem dark and the days are just a mish-mash of the other days that have come before but you don’t have to suffer in silence alone, there are people who can and want to help.

Your Questions

Still have questions about depression and how it affects our minds and brain chemistry?

We’d love to hear from you! We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further information to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ Mayo Clinic: “Depression – A Definition”

² Journal of Neural Transmission: “Longitudinal Brain Volume Changes in Major Depressive Disorder”

³ The Lancet Psychiatry Journal: “Association of translocator protein total distribution volume with duration of untreated major depressive disorder: a cross-sectional study”

⁴ Harvard Medical School – Health Publication: “How Depression Affects Your Thinking Skills”

⁵ Healthline: “MRI Scans May Pick Up Brain Abnormalities in People with Depression”

⁶ NBC News – Video: “How Your Brain Works When You’re Depressed”

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