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Overwhelmed and depressed? Well, there may be a connection

Emotion-processing networks disrupted in sufferers of depression

Ever feel overwhelmed when you are depressed, well the good news is it isn’t just you, the bad news is it’s probably your brain. Regions of the brain that normally work together to process emotion become decoupled in people who experience multiple episodes of depression, neuroscientists report. The findings may help identify which patients will benefit from long term antidepressant treatment to prevent the recurrence of depressive episodes.

“Half of people who have a first depressive episode will go on to have another within two years,” says Scott Langenecker, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at UIC and corresponding author on the study.

Disruptions in the network of areas of the brain that are simultaneously active during problem-solving and emotional processing have been implicated in several mental illnesses, including depression. But in addition, “hyperconnectivity,” or too much connection, within the “resting network,” or areas active during rest and self-reflection, has also been linked to depression.

“If we can identify different network connectivity patterns that are associated with depression, then we may be able to determine which are risk factors for poorer outcomes down the line, such as having multiple episodes, and we can keep those patients on preventive or maintenance medication,” Langenecker explained.

“We can also start to see what medications work best for people with different connectivity patterns, to develop more personalized treatment plans.”

In previous research, Langenecker found that the emotional and cognitive brain networks were hyperconnected in young adults who had depression. Areas of the brain related to rumination — thinking about the same thing over and over again – a known risk factor for depression, were also overly connected in adolescents who had experienced depression.

In the new study, Langenecker said he and his coworkers wanted to see if different patterns of network-disruption would show up in young adults who had experienced only one episode of depression versus several episodes.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to scan the brains of 77 young adults (average age, just 21.) Seventeen of the participants were experiencing major depression at the time of the scan, while 34 were currently well. Of these 51 patients, 36 had experienced at least one episode of depression in the past, and these individuals were compared to 26 participants who had never experienced a major depressive episode. None were taking psychiatric medication at the time they were scanned.

All fMRI scans were done in a resting state — to show which areas of the brain are most synchronously active as one relaxes and lets their mind wander.

The researchers found that the amygdala, a region involved in detecting emotion, is decoupled from the emotional network in people who have had multiple episodes of depression. This may cause emotional-information processing to be less accurate, Langenecker said, and could explain “negative processing-bias” in which depression sufferers perceive even neutral information as negative.

The researchers also saw that participants who had had at least one prior depressive episode — whether or not they were depressed at the time of the scan — exhibited increased connectivity between the resting and cognitive networks.

“This may be an adaptation the brain makes to help regulate emotional biases or rumination,” Langenecker said.

“Since this study provides just a snapshot of the brain at one point in time, longer-term studies are needed, to determine whether the patterns we saw may be predictive of a future of multiple episodes for some patients and might help us identify who should have maintenance treatments and targets for new preventive treatments,” he said.

Remember, it’s never, “just in your head.”

Jacobs, R., Barba, A., Gowins, J., Klumpp, H., Jenkins, L., Mickey, B., Ajilore, O., Peciña, M., Sikora, M., Ryan, K., Hsu, D., Welsh, R., Zubieta, J., Phan, K., & Langenecker, S. (2016). Decoupling of the amygdala to other salience network regions in adolescent-onset recurrent major depressive disorder Psychological Medicine, 1-13 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291715002615

7 responses

  1. That picture quote is just heartbreaking


    January 20, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    • Yeah, I felt the same way. But it really works for the subject matter.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 20, 2016 at 6:58 pm

  2. meghanmcgee

    Interesting post! We really need to work together to end the stigma surrounding mental health. Hopefully educating people with posts like these will help us get there.


    January 20, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    • Agreed, as someone who’s dealt with depression first hand, it is annoying that people still don’t seem to understand it’s not any more of a choice than it was a choice to be left or right handed. To this day I cannot stand people who talk down about depression like it’s some sort of fad.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 20, 2016 at 7:00 pm

      • meghanmcgee

        It really is a shame to see such ignorance. All the best to you, though. I’m sure writing about it is cathartic in some ways. Keep it up.


        January 20, 2016 at 7:14 pm

  3. Steven

    The connections stated in this article were very interesting. It would be interesting to see if the separation of the amygdala from the emotional network is consistent in future research and if this separation appears in any individuals who have only experienced one episode of depression. If that is the case hopefully this condition can be fixed and/or prevented saving people from having to go through this terrible experience.


    January 24, 2016 at 9:02 pm

  4. Pingback: Mental illness, that’s a funny term isn’t it? | Lunatic Laboratories

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