What Are The Effects Of Depression On The Brain?

Depression is a mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Besides pushing a person into a gloomy and dejected state of mind, it also causes damage to the brain permanently. It changes the physical shape of the brain, which as a result causes major changes in behavior and cognition. Depression primarily affects three areas of the brain, which control memory and concentration. Almost 20 percent of depression patients never make a full recovery. Brain damage occurs due to persistent depression rather than being a predisposing factor for it. Depression affects the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex of the brain. Here are the effects of depression on the brain.

1. Hippocampus

Effects Of Depression On The Brain: Hippocampus

No, this is not a huge mammal that lives in the wetlands of Africa. A vital organ located bang in the middle of the brain, the hippocampus rapidly generates new connections between cells. It stores memories and regulates the production of a hormone called cortisol.

The body releases cortisol during times of depression, physical and mental stress. Stressful events or chemical imbalance in the body can cause excessive amounts of cortisol, which further complicates the condition. Excess cortisol level in the body is linked to obesity, which gives rise to numerous diseases.1 In a healthy brain, neurons (brain cells) are produced throughout a person’s adult life in the hippocampus. But, among people with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), long-term exposure to increased cortisol levels reduces the production of new neurons and causes the neurons in the hippocampus to shrink.2 3

Using brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data involving almost 9000 people from around the world, an

international team of researchers observed that people who suffered recurring bouts of depression also had a smaller hippocampus.

The relationship between severe depression and the hippocampus is toxic. The duration of past depression impairs memory performance, pointing to a toxic link between depression and cognition. This calls for an urgent addressing of the problem of depression for public health.4

2. Amygdala

Effects Of Depression On The Brain: Amygdala

The amygdala is responsible for emotional responses such as pleasure and fear. In people with MDD, due to continuous exposure to high levels of cortisol, the amygdala becomes enlarged and more active.5 An enlarged and hyperactive amygdala, combined with abnormal activity in other parts of the brain results in disturbances in sleep and activity patterns. It also makes the body release irregular amounts of hormones and other chemicals in the body, resulting in further complications.

3. Prefrontal Cortex

Effects Of Depression On The Brain: Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is located in the very front of the frontal lobe. It is responsible for a variety of complex behaviors, regulating emotions, making decisions, planning, forming memories and greatly contributes to personality development. Excessive production of cortisol causes the prefrontal cortex to shrink.

The frontal lobes are much bigger than the hippocampus. The study that observed the shrinkage in both areas concluded that the frontal lobe undergoes the same changes as the hippocampus. The frontal lobes are also directly involved in managing emotional reactions and focusing

attention. Shrinking frontal lobes is just as critical as the shrinking of the hippocampi.6

Can Cortisol Be The Culprit?

Researchers acknowledge the fact that high cortisol levels play a crucial role in modifying the physical structure and chemical activities of the brain, triggering the onset of MDD. Under normal circumstances, cortisol levels peak during the day and decrease at night. In people with MDD, cortisol levels are always at an increased level, even at night.7

Can Meditation Help?

Meditation Helps with Effects Of Depression On The Brain

Meditation is a powerful method to overcome depression and help the brain to recover from the damage caused due to depression. Research has shown that meditation can actually increase the density of the brain.8 9