The Science of Depression

The Science of Depression

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For quite some time, depression has been shrouded by myths and misconceptions. This is why it is no surprise that a depression diagnosis is susceptible to a plethora of misguided beliefs and stigmas.  Some believe that it is a fabricated illness which serves as a scapegoat for prolonged periods of sadness or low mood, that you can simply “snap out” of depression, or that individuals with depression simply have a negative outlook a life. Fortunately, in the recent years, scientists and researchers have made astounding developments in discovering the anatomical and physiological reasons behind depression due to massive advancements in technologies which allow us to closely monitor and observe the workings of the human brain and body. This groundbreaking science has ultimately allowed us to dispel these myths and shed some light on the science of depression.

So, now you may be asking yourself: “What biological factors cause depression?” Well, to put it simply, it’s complicated. Depression, just like many mental disorders and physical disorders, has a variety of factors that may be involved. What follows below is a shortened version of some of the potential causes behind depression.

  • Biological Differences: Recent studies using highly sophisticated forms brain imaging have found that individuals who are depressed have a smaller hippocampus, higher activity in the amygdala, and problems with the thalamus. Additionally, research has shown that women have higher rates of depression than men, indicating that gender difference plays a role in depression, and that some races and ethnicities have higher rates of depression than others.
  • Brain Chemistry: Neurotransmitters are colloquially referred as the body’s chemical messengers. They are the molecules used by the nervous system to transmit messages between the neurons in the brain. In this case of depression, scientists believe that the primary culprit is low serotonin, also known as one of the “feel good” hormones. Serotonin assists in regulating mood and low amounts have been associated with depression; this is why many individuals who have depression are prescribed SSRIs. Along with serotonin, there have been many other neurotransmitters thought to contribute to depression, such as dopamine and norepinephrine.
  • Hormones: Shifts and changes in the body’s balance of hormones is thought to involved in triggering or causing depression. Drastic hormone changes can come with events such as pregnancy and in the period following delivery, a condition known as postpartum depression, thyroid problems and dysregulation, menopause, and several other conditions which disrupt normal hormone production. In particular, low levels of estrogen, testosterone, and high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, can contribute to depression.
  • Inherited Traits:  Depression appears to be more common in individuals who have blood relatives that have this condition. This could be because of genes. Scientists have been working to identify exactly which genes can contribute to depression, but the current thinking is that genes which are responsible for the stress response can contribute to this condition by causing us to become depressed in response to stressful or negative events.  A good example of this is research which has shown that bipolar disorder and depression can run in families, with members experiencing these conditions at higher rates than normal.

Most of us know someone who has struggled with depression and a number of us have encountered depression in our own lives. Below is a short video covering much of what is said here. The folks at AsapSCIENCE break it down pretty simply to help the complex science of depression feel a little bit more digestible. The video focuses on the genetic factors of depression as well as how the brain responds to events that can trigger depression. They make an important point in saying depression isn’t just something that people can “get over.”

A couple interesting tidbits. Did you know that animals can help people cope with depression? In some of our past posts, we have explored how mindfulness (part 1 and part 2) can help people cope with depression and we have discussed medications and depression. If you or a loved one would like guidance on mental health issues, please don’t hesitate to contact us to make a counseling appointment. Additionally, if you would like more information about what the counseling process for depression involves, you can read about depression counseling.