What are the effects of depression on the brain?
Mental problems cause impairment on one’s overall functioning. People with some sort of psychological issues face difficult challenges in their lives.
One of the most common psychological disorders that many people experience is depression. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that there are 300 million people suffer from depression. This makes the depression the common mental disorder.
What is Depression?
Depression is generally a type of mood disorder that causes emotional problems. It affects your cognitive and emotional processes including but not limited to how you feel and act. Most signs of depression involve the feelings of sadness and hopelessness that linger in days to few years to some extent.
Every one of us experiences emotional pain sometimes. And it is normal. That what makes us human – emotion.
But having depression or being depressed is an entirely different story. Depression is not just a simple feeling of frustration and emotional turmoil. It is something that affects one’s ability to perform a task.
Not all people who have depression experience it in the same way. Some people are depressed once but others have severe episodes of depression many times in their lifetime.
Those who experience severe and long-lasting symptoms of depression may have the major depressive disorder of MDD. It is also called the clinical depression.
Clinical depression is a type of depression that affects mood and behaviour of an individual. In fact, many people who suffer from this condition found difficulties in dealing with their job, academic, or relationship demands.
The Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM – 5) published by the American Psychiatric Association determines the criteria for the diagnosis of MDD. A person can only be diagnosed with the major depressive disorder if he/she has at least five of the symptoms once a day within two weeks.
The symptoms are the following:
- Lingering feeling of hopelessness and sadness
- Difficulty to gain a regular amount of sleep
- Feeling of restlessness
- Feeling of fatigue
- Has persistent thoughts of death or suicide ideation
- Suicide attempt
- Loss of interest in the activities that he/she was once interested or enjoyed
- Changes of appetite that has led to weight gain or weight loss
- Persistent feeling of inappropriateness
- Difficulty in making concentrating, thinking, or making a decision
The major depressive disorder can happen at any age. But in most cases, the average age of onset was found to be 32. The condition is more prevalent among adults than children.
Mental health professionals often use psychological interventions to treat depression. The most common strategies to treat depression are psychotherapy, medication, or the combination of medication and psychotherapy.
In reality, no one exactly knows why people develop depression. There is no single factor that could account for the prevalence of depression. But most experts believe the following factors must have contributed to the development of MDD.
Genetics or inheritance factor is one of the most influential factors that play an important role on the development of MDD. If MDD runs in the family, the offspring will most likely to develop the MDD.
Most experts believe that any mental disorder could stem from the simple stress. If stress remains unresolved or treated, one may develop a more serious mental condition. Thus, stressful situations such as the death of a loved one, relationship breakup, job loss, are all could trigger depression.
The brain and the entire nervous system contains special chemicals called the neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters influence the mental processes of a person. Any irregularities in the amount of each neurotransmitter could cause mental problems.
What are the possible effects of depression on the brain?
Before discussing the effect of depression on the brain, you must understand the brain structures first. There are three structures in the brain that play an important role in the development of depressive disorder: the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala.
The hippocampus is known to be the part of the brain that stores your memory. But it has an additional job; it also regulates the amount of stress hormones called cortisol.
The body, under a stressful situation, it produces stress hormone. But after the cessation of stressful conditions, the amount of hormones must also be decreased. In some instances, however, the amount of stress hormone remain high. This, in turn ,will result in a problematic mental condition.
The lingering high level of stress hormone affects the growth of new neurons that could also affect the size of the hippocampus. When this happens, a person may experience memory issues.
The exposure to the high level of cortisol also affects the prefrontal cortex. Like the hippocampus, the neurons in this region may also shrink. This region of the brain is located in the front side just inside of your forehead. It is responsible for generating emotions and decision making.
The effect of high level of cortisol on the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional responses such as fear and pleasure, can be different. Unlike the previous structures of the brain that shrink, the amygdala enlarges. The enlarged amygdala may cause difficulties in gaining enough sleep.
These are just a few possible effects of depression on the brain. Science may continue to discover the mechanisms of the brain that shape behavior.
Can treatment change the brain?
There are available treatments for MDD. Medication is one of them. But experts believe that psychotherapy can also help. It can alter the structure of the brain. Researchers believe that psychological intervention strengthens the neural connections in the frontal cortex.
Aside from the mentioned techniques, enough sleep, healthy food intake, and the avoidance of alcohol and illegal drugs could help treat depression. For extreme cases, seek professional help.
I’m a licensed psychometrician, author, and blogger. I’m currently working as a University instructor teaching psychology. I love writing and doing psychological research.