15 August 2007

Depression partly faulty wiring

People with clinical depression may be unable to ‘snap out of it’ because of faulty wiring in the brain, according to a study released Tuesday.

People with clinical depression may be unable to ‘snap out of it’ because of faulty wiring in the brain, according to a study released Tuesday.

Researchers who compared the way people with very severe depression responded to negative stimuli relative to a group of healthy controls found that the circuits involved in controlling emotions were disrupted in the depressed individuals.

"The neural circuits involved with regulating emotions may be damaged in people with this condition," said Tom Johnstone, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Medicine and Public Health and lead author of the study published in the journal Neuroscience.

One of the hallmarks of depression is that people with the condition seem to be unable to pull themselves out of a funk or black mood.

In order to figure out what goes awry in these situations, Johnstone and his colleagues conducted an experiment on a group of 21 depressed people and 18 healthy controls.

Stimulating emotions
Researchers tried to manipulate them into a negative state of mind and then watched how well they could bounce back.

Specifically, they presented their guinea pigs with a series of images of things such as car accidents or threatening-looking animals and then asked them to consciously modulate their responses, by envisioning more positive outcomes than the one implied.

They also asked them to try imagining the situation was acted out rather than real.

"We ask them to reframe the content of what they're seeing," said Johnstone. "We hope to engage cognitive areas in re-interpreting the emotional content of a stimulus."

As expected, all of the individuals had increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortical areas that are known to regulate the emotional parts of the brain.

Brain dysfunction in depressed people
In the healthy individuals, high levels of prefrontal cortical activity correlated with low levels of activity in the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure that appears to regulate fear and anxiety.

In other words, they were able to quell their emotional response to the images.

In the depressed individuals, high levels of activity in the amygdala persisted in spite of the intense activity in the regulatory regions, and even increased in response to it, suggesting that their conscious effort to recalibrate their emotions was thwarted by dysfunctional brain circuits.

The researchers speculated that signals from the prefrontal cortical area of the brain are not getting through to the amygdala in the depressed individuals for reasons still unknown.

The findings suggest that cognitive behavioural therapies that hold that an individual can change the way they feel about a situation by changing the way they think about it may be counterproductive for some people.

"Our results suggest that there is a subgroup of patients with depression for whom traditional cognitive therapy may be contraindicated," said senior author, Richard Davidson.

He noted that in some cases, the depressed individuals' mental effort to recalibrate their response only resulted in greater emotional activity. – (SAPA)

Read more:
Symptoms of depression
Depression often misdiagnosed and incorrectly treated


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Depression expert

Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules