What Does Depression Do To Your Brain


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Depression And Substance Abuse

How Your Brain Works When You’re Depressed | Better | NBC News

Symptoms of depression can be debilitating, and feel overwhelming. Because of this, individuals with depression are more likely to develop an abusive relationship with drugs, alcohol, and other substances. Substance abuse and depression go hand in hand. People with depression may seek a sense of control or escape by using alcohol to numb the emotional symptoms of depression.

Conversely, the use of drugs and alcohol can trigger and enhance depressive symptoms and have other damaging repercussions. It is estimated that 30% of people with substance abuse problems experience depression. The pairing of substance abuse and depression is dangerous, We strongly urge individuals with depression to seek professional help and to avoid drugs and alcohol.

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A Long Road To Understanding Depression

For years and years, doctors and researchers assumed that depression stemmed from an abnormality within these neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin or norepinephrine. But over time, these two neurotransmitters did not seem to account for the symptoms associated with major depression. As a result, doctors began to look elsewhere.

The search proved fruitful. There are chemical messengers, which include glutamate and GABA, between the nerve cells in the higher centers of the brain involved in regulating mood and emotion, says John Krystal, MD, chair of Yales Department of Psychiatry, noting that these may be alternative causes for the symptoms of depression.

These two are the brains most common neurotransmitters. They regulate how the brain changes and develops over a lifetime. When a person experiences chronic stress and anxiety, some of these connections between nerve cells break apart. As a result, communication between the affected cells becomes noisy, according to Dr. Krystal. And its this noise, along with the overall loss of connections, that many believe contribute to the biology of depression.

There are clear differences between a healthy brain and a depressed brain, Dr. Katz says. And the exciting thing is, when you treat that depression effectively, the brain goes back to looking like a healthy brain.

In this video, Drs. Katz and Krystal explain how depression affects the brain.

Other Depression Neurotransmitters To Consider

There are over 100 neurotransmitters in the brain, and while the three listed above are the main ones involved in depression, there are certainly others worth considering. The three were going to add to this list are glutamate, GABA, and acetylcholine.

Acetylcholine is one of the major neurotransmitters linked to memory, attention, focus, and more. Choline is the main precursor to acetylcholine, and its largely linked to Alzheimers and fibromyalgia.

Glutamate is also involved in learning and memory, but its involved in every excitatory brain function. On the other hand, GABA is largely linked to sleep, stress, anxiety, and other mood-related symptoms. Any deficiency could lead to depression-like symptoms.

While GABA is the most intriguing, researchers are still trying to see whether acetylcholine and glutamate have any direct effects on depression.

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The Neurobiology Of Depression

Depression was originally believed to be derived from an abnormality in serotonin and/or norepinephrine the hormone that plays the role in your bodys flight or fight response. However, upon further investigation and research, scientists have discovered that this might not be painting the full picture.

There are chemical messengers, which include glutamate and GABA, between the nerve cells in the higher centers of the brain involved in regulating mood and emotion.

John Krystal, MD, Chair of Yales Department of Psychiatry

Beyond serotonin and norepinephrine, the two neurotransmitters mentioned above glutamate and GABA also seem to play a part in regulating how the brain develops over time.

Chronic stress and anxiety two attributes of depression can cause the connections between these two neurotransmitters to break apart, and as a result, communication is muddled. This broken communication and connection are what scientists are believing to lead to the neurobiology of depression.

How To Get Help

Breaking Sad  Uneasy Lies the Crown

Tell your doctor if you have symptoms of depression. Theyâll want to rule out other health conditions so they can find you the right treatment. You might need to make some lifestyle changes, take medicine, or talk to a mental health specialist. Some people benefit from a mix of all three.

Some treatments for mild or serious depression include:

  • Healthy diet change

Suicide is a serious symptom of depression. Get help right away if youâre thinking about hurting yourself. You can reach someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Theyâre available anytime, day or night.

Show Sources

Molecular Psychiatry: âSubcortical brain alterations in major depressive disorder: findings from the ENIGMA Major Depressive Disorder working group.â

Translational Psychiatry: âProfound and reproducible patterns of reduced regional gray matter characterize major depressive disorder.â

Neural Plasticity: âThe Role of Neural Plasticity in Depression: From Hippocampus to Prefrontal Cortex.â

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America : âDepression, antidepressants, and the shrinking hippocampus.â

Frontiers in Immunology: âThe Role of Inflammation in Depression and Fatigue.â

The Lancet Psychiatry: âMicroglia and major depression: not yet a clear picture,â âAssociation of translocator protein total distribution volume with duration of untreated major depressive disorder: a cross-sectional study.â

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Is Brain Damage From Mental Health Conditions Permanent

The majority of changes and damage to the brain caused by untreated depression are not believed to be permanent, but more research is still needed.

When depression is effectively treated, most people commonly experience an improvement in symptoms, and their brains return to typical function and structure.

If you or a loved one think you have depression, consider seeking treatment with a doctor or mental health professional at the first signs and symptoms. Early intervention can stop depression symptoms from worsening and may help prevent changes to your brain.

Though depression may cause temporary changes to the structure and functions of your brain, you can potentially heal this damage.

Depression And The Brain: A Depressed Brain Vs A Normal Brain

When most people think of depression, they think of the emotional and behavioral effects of depression.

Some people may even consider some of the physical effects like weight change or irregular sleep problems, but what many people tend to forget about is the connection between depression and the brain. Scientists have speculated for many years about what a depressed brain looks like and have found key differences between a depressed brain versus a normal brain.

The Difference Between a Depressed Brain vs. a Normal Brain

At Banyan Mental Health, our Boca mood and anxiety disorder treatment programs work with people who struggle with depression, and we are familiar with the many ways that this disorder can affect someone. Although our treatments focus on healing our patients mental health, the brain of someone with depression is not to be ignored.

When comparing a depressed brain versus a normal brain, scientists have found some subtle but important differences including grey matter abnormalities, brain shrinkage, and a more active amygdala in depressed brains.

Grey Matter Abnormalities

Grey matter in the brain refers to brain tissue that is made up of cell bodies and nerve cells. People with depression were shown to have thicker grey matter in parts of the brain involved in self-perception and emotions.1 This abnormality could be contributing to the problems someone with depression has in these areas.

Brain Shrinkage

More Active Amygdala

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Brain Areas Involved In Depression

Several brain areas in particular seem to play a major role in the development of depression symptoms.

The amygdala, located deep in the center of the brain, is involved in many emotional responses including activating the brain and bodys fear response. This area tends to have increased activity in people with depression.

Research has also shown that some areas of the brain appear to shrink and thus function less well in people with chronic depression. These areas include the hippocampus, which is involved in long-term memory, and the thalamus, which regulates sleep and wake cycles and handles sensory and motor input. Its important to note that, while chemical imbalances and other brain mechanisms are involved in depression, they alone dont cause depression. Genetics, traumatic experiences, medical conditions, chronic stress and even personal characteristics can make someone more likely to develop depression.

Some people are more emotionally reactive and feel their feelings more strongly, says Areán. That alone doesnt necessarily mean they will develop a mental illness, but they may be at higher risk in situations where they dont have much control.

Life Events And Depression

How the Brain Causes Depression. How to Heal it.

Research suggests that continuing difficulties, such as long-term unemployment, living in an abusive or uncaring relationship, long-term isolation or loneliness or prolonged exposure to stress at work can increase the risk of depression.

Significant adverse life events, such as losing a job, going through a separation or divorce, or being diagnosed with a serious illness, may also trigger depression, particularly among people who are already at risk because of genetic, developmental or other personal factors.

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How Do Brain Networks Produce Major Depression

Psychologically, hallmarks of major depression include the overemphasis placed on negative events and emotions , and the state of anhedonia . Together, these factors conspire to make the depressed subject feel as though everything is terrible and that nothing is really worth doing. Two important brain regions for this are the amygdala, for negative emotions, and the nucleus accumbens, for pleasure .

Does Depression Show Up On An Mri

Brain Abnormalities in people with depression can be picked up by magnetic resonance scans. According to a new study, people with major depression have a blood-brain barrier that is abnormal. Researchers found that the brains of people with major depression were not as healthy as they should be.

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How Depression Affects The Brain

When we think about depression, what comes to mind are feelings and emotions or, for some, the absence of feelings and emotions. In order to really understand depression, however, its important to be aware that the condition has physical aspects as well. Most people understand what depression looks like on the outside, in terms of a persons behavior, but our medical understanding of the actual progression of the disease and its treatments continues to evolve.

What we know right now is that, on a chemical level, depression involves neurotransmitters, which can be thought of as the messengers that carry signals between brain cells, or neurons.

The current standard of care for the treatment of depression is based on what we call the monoamine deficiency hypothesis, essentially presuming that one of three neurotransmitters in the brain is deficient or underactive, says Rachel Katz, MD, a Yale Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry.

But according to Dr. Katz, this is only part of the story. There are about 100 types of neurotransmitters overall, and billions of connections between neurons in each persons brain.

There remains much to learn.

Onset Of Depression More Complex Than A Brain Chemical Imbalance

The effects of depression on the body and physical health

It’s often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that figure of speech doesn’t capture how complex the disease is. Research suggests that depression doesn’t spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, there are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, and stressful life events. It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.

To be sure, chemicals are involved in this process, but it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high. Rather, many chemicals are involved, working both inside and outside nerve cells. There are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life.

With this level of complexity, you can see how two people might have similar symptoms of depression, but the problem on the inside, and therefore what treatments will work best, may be entirely different.

This article will address the how different parts of the brain affect mood.

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Seek Support For Symptoms Of Depression

Depression is often not recognised and can go on for months or even years if left untreated. Its important to seek support as early as possible, as the sooner a person gets treatment, the sooner they can recover.

Untreated depression can have many negative effects on a persons life, including serious relationship and family problems, difficulty finding and holding down a job, and drug and alcohol problems.

There is no one proven way that people recover from depression. However, there is a range of effective treatments and health professionals who can help people on the road to recovery.

There are also many things that people with depression can do for themselves to help them recover and stay well. The important thing is to find the right treatment and the right health professional for a persons needs.

Brain Regions And Mood

Popular lore has it that emotions reside in the heart. Science, though, tracks the seat of your emotions to the brain. Certain areas of the brain help regulate mood. Researchers believe that more important than levels of specific brain chemicals nerve cell connections, nerve cell growth, and the functioning of nerve circuits have a major impact on depression.

Increasingly sophisticated forms of brain imaging such as positron emission tomography , single-photon emission computed tomography , and functional magnetic resonance imaging permit a much closer look at the working brain than was possible in the past. An fMRI scan, for example, can track changes that take place when a region of the brain responds during various tasks. A PET or SPECT scan can map the brain by measuring the distribution and density of neurotransmitter receptors in certain areas.

Use of this technology has led to a better understanding of which brain regions regulate mood and how other functions, such as memory, may be affected by depression. Areas that play a significant role in depression are the amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus .

Figure 1: Areas of the brain involved with depression

The regions shown here are mirrored in both hemispheres of the brain. Also, these structures are interlocking the illustration suggests relative position but not precise location.

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What Happens To Your Brain With Depression

While depression can be triggered or caused by several factors, researchers have long suspected the disorder was related to chemistry in the brain.

Recent studies have found that not only does the brain’s structure and chemicals play a role in depression, but that the disorder can also cause physical changes to the brain². These changes may include inflammation, oxygen restriction, structural and connectivity changes, and brain shrinkage.


Inflammation³ is the immune system’s normal response to infection and disease. The human body typically uses inflammation to protect and heal itself after injury or trauma. However, too much inflammation is potentially damaging.

Researchers have discovered that there is a link between depression and inflammation of the brain. While the connection between depression and brain inflammation is still unclear, a 2015 study found inflammation deep in the brains of patients who have this mental disorder.

In addition, the study found that the severity of the inflammation is related to the time a person has been depressed. For instance, research showed that brain inflammation increased by an average of 30% in individuals who suffered from clinical depression for over ten years².

Oxygen restriction

Clinical depression has also been linked to hypoxia, or oxygen restriction, in the brain. The normal functioning of the brain is highly dependent on an adequate supply of oxygen from the blood.

Connective changes and reduced functionality

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How Depression Affects The Brain – Yale Medicine Explains

The mutations that lead to lung cancer had been considered to be permanent, and to persist even after quitting. But the surprise findings, published in Nature, show the few cells that escape damage can repair the lungs. The effect has been seen even in patients who had smoked a pack a day for 40 years before giving up.

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Shrinkage Of Several Brain Regions

One of the most common changes seen in a depressed patients brain is shrinkage, especially in the hippocampus, thalamus, frontal cortex, and prefrontal cortex. How much these brain areas shrink depends on the length and severity of your depression.

A chemical imbalance caused by the hormone cortisol a.k.a. the stress hormone is what triggers this shrinkage. Depression causes the hippocampus to raise its cortisol levels, impeding the development of neurons in your brain. The shrinkage of brain circuits is closely connected to the reduction of the affected parts function.

While other cerebral areas shrink due to high levels of cortisol, the amygdala enlarges. The amygdala controls emotion, so this may cause issues like sleep disturbances, mood swings, and other hormone-related problems. An enlarged amygdala is also linked to the development of bipolar disorder.

Depression Is A Serious Mood Disorder

Depression affects millions of people According to the National Institute of Mental Health , it is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Major depression can result in severe impairments that interfere with or limit ones ability to carry out major life activities for some individuals.

Depression is a common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks, according to The National Institute of Mental Health.

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