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How Depression Influences Brain Functioning

Depression and Brain Functioning
Written by:

Rabia Khaliq

MSc in Applied Psychology
Reviewer:

Dr. Bradley Noon

MD

Content

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Depression is generally understood in terms of emotions and moods. For most people, it is about low moments and the presence or absence of certain emotions. However, depression is more than this.

Major depressive disorder can impair a person’s ability to function normally as it affects how one feels, thinks, and acts. More crucially, it has a significant impact on the brain. Studies now show clear differences between a depressed brain and a normal brain. Understanding what happens in the brain during depression is vital for effective treatment, so read on to know more.

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How Depression Works in the Brain

Depression impacts the brain’s structure and function. These effects range from the changes in size to how the various neurotransmitters work and how the brain receives oxygen. Here are the main depression effects on the brain.

Brain Shrinkage

One of the brain changes in depression is shrinking. Research shows [1*] that several brain regions shrink among people with depression as they lose their gray matter volume. The gray matter volume contains plenty of brain cells, and the loss affects their optimal functioning. The parts mostly affected include:

  • Hippocampus. This is the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. It also plays an important role in managing stress. When this area shrinks [2*] , it results in memory loss and difficulty in concentrating and accomplishing tasks. It also leaves one susceptible to depression.
  • Prefrontal cortices. These control cognitive functions. They are also responsible for impulse control and emotional reaction. When they shrink, it affects the ability for higher thinking, planning, and decision-making which causes brain fogginess. An individual is also easily agitated and impulsive.
  • Thalamus. This part is responsible for relaying information from the brain’s cortex (outer layer) to the brain stem. It is also responsible for regulating alertness, sleep, and wakefulness. Its shrinkage causes problems with an individual’s sleep pattern, appetite, and general well-being.

Brain Inflammation

Experts are not entirely sure what comes first between brain inflammation and depression. However, there is a strong link between the period an individual has been depressed and inflammation in the brain. Individuals who have had an episode of major depressive disorder will have higher amounts of translocator proteins [3*] . The chemical is linked to brain inflammation which causes a myriad of health problems in the brain:

  • Hurts or kills brain cells.
  • Accelerates brain aging.
  • Prevents the growth of new cells.
  • Slows down overall brain function, making thinking slow and fuzzy.
  • Decreases neurotransmitter function.
  • Decreases neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change as one grows old.

Low Oxygen Levels in the Brain

Clinical depression is also linked to low oxygen levels in the body, a condition known as hypoxia. This link comes from a 2013 study (published in “Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry”, June 2013) that found HIF-1 levels among people with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder to be elevated than usual. HIF-1, which stands for hypoxia-inducible factor-1, is a specific protein the body produces in response to hypoxia, the condition where the brain is not getting sufficient oxygen.

A further association between depression and reduced oxygen in the body is demonstrated in a 2017 study (“Medicine”, July 2017) that showed that hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatments which increase oxygen circulation could help relieve symptoms of depression in humans.

The brain is susceptible to insufficient amounts of oxygen; after five minutes of lack of oxygen, brain cells start dying. It can also lead to inflammation and its associated harmful impacts on the brain. Even short-term hypoxia leads to confusion like that experienced by high-altitude climbers. It can also lead to poor judgment, trouble with moving certain body parts, temporary memory loss, and inattentiveness. In severe cases, hypoxia can lead to seizures, coma, or brain death.

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Brain in Depression: Chemical Changes

Further, depression can cause brain damage to the functioning of neurotransmitters responsible for passing information among neurons and cells within the body. There are three kinds of neurotransmitters:

  • Excitatory
  • Inhibitory
  • Modulatory

There are over 100 neurotransmitters, and they regulate every process in the body. A 2017 study found that an uncommon [4*] imbalance between inhibitory and excitatory inhibitors could happen during the depression. Another 2018 study linked depression and anxiety with low levels of certain neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Besides that, the effects of depression on the brain are linked to hyperconnectivity or hypoconnectivity in the brain’s frontal and parietal lobes. This is vital to one’s ability to regulate emotions and maintain attention.

When depression affects the connection between brain networks, effects can include:

  • Anhedonia — the inability to feel pleasure in activities one would usually find pleasurable.
  • Rumination — the continual involuntary repetition of negative content, usually thoughts, both in the past and present, which cause emotional distress.
  • Dysphoria — general dissatisfaction with life.

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Effects of depression on the brain

How to Reverse Effects of Depression in the Brain

The changes in the various parts of the brain when depressed affect the areas of one’s life that the respective part controls. Fortunately, getting effective treatment early on will rewire the brain back to normal [5*] functioning and reverse the damage. Treatment involves medication, therapy, and healthy lifestyle changes.

According to a 2016 study, using antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy will help reverse the neurotransmitter changes and inflammation in the brain caused by depression. These may also help the brain reform new connections that were affected during depression episodes.

Cognitive and group therapy uses various techniques to relieve stress and teach the patients to better manage stressors and cope with the stigma around depression. The most widely used techniques include:

  • Interpersonal therapy helps to foster close relationships.
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy helps patients to understand why they make certain choices.
  • Schema-based therapy helps to change harmful patterns developed in childhood.

These strategies help one identify areas in his or her life that have led to chronic stress. They also help people to identify ways to go through life with few stressors and manage encounters with better confidence, ease, and foresight.

Exercising regularly also has significant health benefits in managing brain changes during depression and psychological symptoms. The benefits include:

  • Reducing brain inflammation.
  • Improving cardiovascular activity, which supplies more oxygen to the brain.
  • Improving metabolic function.
  • Activating brain function and enhancing the structure of the hippocampus.

Conclusion

Depression significantly impacts how the brain functions, affecting everything from the size of certain regions, and changes in the neurotransmitters to the supply of oxygen to the brain. These effects compromise your ability to go through normal daily activities and further render you helpless against these effects influencing your productivity, emotions, relationships, and more.

Left untreated, such brain changes that may occur during depression can have a lasting impact and be detrimental to your brain health and general well-being. Fortunately, early intervention with a combination of treatment therapies will help reverse these changes — contact licensed professionals to start depression treatment promptly.

Sources

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+5 sources
  1. The neurobiology of depression. (2012)
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  2. Lifetime major depression and grey-matter volume. (2019)
    Source link
  3. Association of translocator protein total distribution volume with duration of untreated major depressive disorder: a cross-sectional study. (2018)
    Source link
  4. Glutamate and GABA Systems in the Pathophysiology of Major Depression and Antidepressant Response to Ketamine. (2016)
    Source link
  5. Brain changes in depression. (2020)
    Source link
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Written by:

Rabia Khaliq

MSc in Applied Psychology
Reviewer:

Dr. Bradley Noon

MD
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This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by experts.

Our team of experts strive to be objective, unbiased, honest and to present both sides of the argument.

This article contains scientific references. The numbers
in the parentheses (1, 2, 3) are clickable links to peer-reviewed scientific papers.