Chronic Depression Causes Brain Damage
A study published in Molecular Psychiatry has shown that persistent depression causes brain damage by shrinking the hippocampus, leading to a loss of emotional and behavioural function.
Researchers used magnetic resonance imaged (MRI) brain scans and clinical data from 1,728 people with major depression and 7,199 healthy individuals, combining 15 datasets from Europe, the USA and Australia.
The study, which examined people who have experienced depression before the age of 21 and separate groups experiencing singular and recurring depressive episodes, found that depression leads to brain shrinkage in the limbic system, containing the hippocampus and amygdala.
"This study confirms - in a very large sample - a finding that’s been reported on quite a few occasions," Philip Mitchell says on The Conversation. He is a psychiatrist at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, who wasn’t involved in the research. "It’s interesting that none of the other subcortical areas of the brain have come up as consistently, so it also confirms that the hippocampus is particularly vulnerable to depression."
Professor Ian Hickie, who co-authored the paper said that these findings confirmed what has been suspected for a long time: that depression does alter the brain. He said this study revealed the harm that persistent or chronic depression does.
“Those who have only ever had one episode do not have a smaller hippocampus, so it’s not a predisposing factor but a consequence of the illness state.”
“It puts the emphasis then on early identification of the more severe persistent or recurrent cases. Importantly, in early identification systems you have to stick with those in who it persists or is recurrent, because they’re the ones who will be most harmed from a brain point of view.”
However Professor Hickie also pointed out research that indicated the healing effects of the brain, and particularly the hippocampus. This gives hope that the long-term effects of depression are in fact reversible.
“The hippocampus is one of the most important regenerative areas of the brain,” he says.
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