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.
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 patient’s 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 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.
Cortisol is the stress hormone in the brain. People who suffer from major depression disorder release larger amounts of cortisol than the average person. The result of this long-term exposure is that parts of the brain can actually shrink, including the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which are involved in memory and decision making.2 One study found that on average, women with a history of depression had between 9-13% smaller hippocampi than someone who never struggled with depression.3
The amygdala is a brain structure that is typically associated with regulating emotions. People with depression are often found to have a more active amygdala than in a normal brain. In particular, the amygdala in depressed people is more active than in people without depression when exposed to a negative stimulus such as a sad face. When both people are exposed to a positive stimulus like a happy face, there is little difference.4 Scientists speculate that, once again, increased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, could be the cause of this abnormality.
One problem with these differences is the case of directionality. Does an altered brain structure and chemical function cause depression? Or, are these a result of depression? Scientists are still debating. Another problem arises when substance abuse is involved. Many people will turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their depression, which can result in even messier brain abnormalities. In these cases, our dual diagnosis treatment in South Florida works with patients to address both issues at once.
As part of our mental illness treatment in Boca, we work with our patients to not only help them heal, but also to educate them on every aspect of their disorder.