Can depression be explained simply as a chemical imbalance? The answer is a resounding “no.” I’m basing this episode on a very well-written article by a team at Harvard that offers understandable explanations of what researchers believe is going on in your brain and in your life that can lead to depression.
And here’s their quote: “It’s often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that figure of speech doesn’t capture how complex the disease is. Research suggests that depression doesn’t spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, there are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.”
I’ve divided the information into two parts. Today’s episode will cover the changes in brain structures, define what a neurotransmitter actually is, and focus briefly on the actions of your genes, those traffic lights in every cell of your body that make your body and mind work in their own unique way. Next week we’ll focus on stress, trauma, and other important factors.
I’m not a neurologist or a scientist. But I’ll share with you my simple way of understanding what the most recent research is showing us — with my own homegrown analogies that I hope will be helpful. The Harvard link is provided above for those of you who want to read more and the graphic is below.
Our listener email today is from someone who actually saw me many years ago, and she asks a question about her marriage and her unhappiness within it, “Does everyone who’s married have an escape plan?”
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Here’s the graphic from the Harvard article:
Figure 1: Areas of the brain affected by depression
Amygdala: The amygdala is part of the limbic system, a group of structures deep in the brain that’s associated with emotions such as anger, pleasure, sorrow, fear, and sexual arousal. The amygdala is activated when a person recalls emotionally charged memories, such as a frightening situation. Activity in the amygdala is higher when a person is sad or clinically depressed. This increased activity continues even after recovery from depression.
Thalamus: The thalamus receives most sensory information and relays it to the appropriate part of the cerebral cortex, which directs high-level functions such as speech, behavioral reactions, movement, thinking, and learning. Some research suggests that bipolar disorder may result from problems in the thalamus, which helps link sensory input to pleasant and unpleasant feelings.
Hippocampus: The hippocampus is part of the limbic system and has a central role in processing long-term memory and recollection. Interplay between the hippocampus and the amygdala might account for the adage “once bitten, twice shy.” It is this part of the brain that registers fear when you are confronted by a barking, aggressive dog, and the memory of such an experience may make you wary of dogs you come across later in life. The hippocampus is smaller in some depressed people, and research suggests that ongoing exposure to stress hormone impairs the growth of nerve cells in this part of the brain.
One more important link:
The Mayo Clinic article on a genetic test to help determine which medications would be best for you.