Depression Brain: What Is The Connection Between The Two?

Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault

Published 12/27/2020

Tens of millions of adults in the United States alone will suffer from at least one major depressive episode annually. Just as your mental health is connected to your physical health, depression can also go on to affect you physiologically. This means that depression can both affect and alter physical structures that are susceptible to the brain.

Elderly woman worried about coronavirus outbreak

Source: rawpixel.com

Depressed Brain Vs. Normal Brain

When you are depressed, your brain experiences Inflammation. This Inflammation can lead to an oxygen restriction, which can lead to actual physiological shrinking observed in certain areas of the brain! Of course, It’s important to point out that if your brain is affected, so is your central nervous system, given that the brain is the command center. While these changes are seemingly minor, they are cause for worry. However, with a bit of effort, these changes can be avoided.

PHYSIOLOGICAL SHRINKAGE IN THE BRAIN

Peer-reviewed research demonstrates how individuals suffering from depression may experience shrinkage in specific regions of the brain. The scientific debate has moved on to specific brain regions and how much shrinkage may they experience, including the factors that may aggravate such damage.

Depression brain scans show that the following regions of the brain are primarily affected:

  • Hippocampus
  • Thalamus
  • Amygdala
  • Frontal Region
  • Prefrontal Cortices

It’s easy to see but hard to believe. The extent of the shrinkage that these regions may experience is tied to the severity of the symptoms and the length of the depressive episode. For instance, depression brain scans show that the hippocampus will begin to exhibit changes after a depressed individual experiences symptoms for 8 to 12 months. Research shows that it does not matter if the symptoms came in a single episode or several smaller episodes.

As the brain’s specific region shrinks, so does the functionality that the region is responsible for. After all, we have long known that the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are responsible for emotionality and empathy in the sense of recognizing emotions in others. This could be why people afflicted with postpartum depression struggle to experience high levels of empathy for a long period.

DEPRESSION BRAIN INFLAMMATION

While shrinkage can appear to be more concerning, brain inflammation should be treated with as much seriousness. More and more research emerging links depression and Inflammation. While it is not clear what may come first, it is widely believed that these realities reinforce one another, creating a vicious loop for the patient.

Even more so than brain shrinkage, brain inflammation is strongly tied to the length of the depressive episode. Here is a rough statistic to consider. People that have struggled with depression over the long term, over ten years, in this case, show 30% more Inflammation when compared to people that were depressed for a lesser amount of time. That immediately makes you wonder how debilitating a simple headache must feel like a person with chronic depression.

Of course, many healthcare providers recognize this, and their treatment plans account for significant brain inflammation in cases where the patient has had persistent depression or chronic depression. However, depression is not responsible for complications. Brain inflammation is! Such Inflammation may cause brain cell death, resulting in a number of subsequent complications such as:

  • Reduced activity on the part of neurotransmitters
  • More shrinkage
  • Neuroplasticity, aka the brain not being able to change as the person ages

Secondly, this mimics a domino effect. The complications above will result in poor brain development, reduced capacity to learn, poor memory function, and excessive moodiness.

Hand drawn pink brain design element

Source: rawpixel.com

REDUCED LEVELS OF OXYGEN OR OXYGEN RESTRICTION

To understand this, we have to look at the ancient science of yoga, which links breathing to altered mental states. While yoga says that consciously engaging in a pattern of breathing may bring about a change in your mental state, modern science thinks that altered mental states, such as depression, may cause the breathing function to deteriorate. What is irrefutable is that these two things are intrinsically linked with one another. Someone who is depressed will have poor, broken, and arrhythmic breathing patterns instead of someone who’s full of optimism and leads others in their optimism, who is likely to breathe deeply and strongly every chance they get.

If you have been experiencing depression for some time, your body may be starving for oxygen. That includes your brain. When your brain stops getting enough oxygen, you enter hypoxia. With hypoxia, the body produces a specific cellular factor, which is elevated in certain specific immune system cells. That could be an indicator of depression, with depression reaching a physiological level in the patient.

Once again, reduced oxygen availability will lead to Inflammation, injury to brain cells, and, eventually, brain cell death. Anyone’s guess how patently destructive this can be once the process begins to establish and reinforce itself.  In particular, patients are likely to begin experiencing memory and mood-related issues. Learning and development functions will also take a hit. If you wanted real-world proof, look no further than high altitude trekkers who often suffer from short term hypoxia and describe a feeling of confusion.

Fun fact: hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatments have a great impact on the symptoms of depression. Of course, this is because they effectively oxygenate your body to average out the uneven breathing pattern.

IMPACT ON THE STRUCTURE AND THE CONNECTIVITY IN THE BRAIN

Your brain goes into a very mild form of hibernation when the supply of oxygen is disrupted. Structural and connective changes have also been observed.

Hippocampus

You may experience a reduction in the functionality of the hippocampus. That would be why your memory function is getting disrupted.

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex region may also experience lower functionality. As a result, your attention span would be disrupted, and you would find it harder to accomplish things. The disruption in the executive function could be a big loss.

Amygdala

Your amygdala is responsible for the regulation of emotional responses, as well as your mood. This right here may be the reason why the patient may come across as irritable.

It is both a good and a bad thing that takes up to 8 months for these changes to begin to be perceived. That means you won’t be able to respond soon enough if you were clueless. However, if you are aware of the risks, you have that much more time to get your life back on track.

Even after episodes of longer-lasting depression have subsided, the patient may be left with their executive function, mood, attention span, memory function, and emotional regulation in disarray.

How To Cope With Depression?

Your aggressive fight and posture against depression is also your best defense. With it being as common as it is, several methods have evolved to address the symptoms of depression. Many of these have been proven by research to reduce the intensity of symptoms.

Depressed man meets up with a psychologist

Source: rawpixel.com

PSYCHOTHERAPY AND POSITIVE SOCIAL INTERACTION

It’s extremely helpful if the patient is ready and willing to reach out and ask for help. Of course, this process is made difficult with the stigma commonly associated with mental health. In fact, there is very little awareness of how depression is also a physical disease, as shown above. Cognitive and behavioral therapy, as well as peer group interactions, will help you get over your feelings of guilt about developing depression.  Psychotherapy and peer support sessions focus on relieving stress while inducing mindfulness in behavior and thought. This could also help reduce the intensity of your symptoms.

MEDICATION

As most people know, there are medications that you can take to minimize or get rid of depression symptoms entirely. But, just remember that all medication comes with side effects. Your reaction may be considerably different than the next person’s. One of the biggest reasons healthcare providers prescribe antidepressant medication is because it prevents some of the physical symptoms discussed above from occurring. Therefore, antidepressants through the course of your depressive episode may prevent your physiology from getting worse. This may give you enough time to work on your mind. In fact, a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressant medication may just do the trick. Not only would you manage the physical changes, but you would also be taking care of your symptoms.

The information found in the article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have.

REDUCE YOUR STRESS

Finding ways to reduce your stress can help you, whether you are currently experiencing a depressive episode or are trying to prevent another episode from happening—substantial research documents how psychological stress is tied to the initiation and the severity of depression.

Of course, today’s world is full of stress at every corner, and finding ways to reduce your stress level can feel impossible. However, there are little things you can do that can make a big difference. This could include adopting a small, healthy habit such as meditating for five minutes every morning before you get dressed. Another way to reduce stress could be participating in activities like yoga or tai chi focused on calming the mind and body. These are just a few of the many different things you can do to reduce the amount of stress in your life.

Senior woman doing Sukhasana pose

Source: rawpixel.com

If you’ve been feeling down and think it may be something more than just being blue, take this free depression test to evaluate your symptoms and determine if it’s time to talk to your doctor about how you’ve been feeling.