New research has identified brain structure changes linked to depression in areas associated with emotion processing and thinking. The finding contributes evidence that depression has physical effects on the body, and may also lead to more effective ways to treat this widespread condition.

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh identified several alterations in the brains of depression patients that were not seen in patients without the condition. These changes were most notable in the patient’s white brain matter, an area of the brain crucial for inter-neuron communication and allowing different parts of the brain to communicate with each other using electrical signals. The authors said this is the largest single study to show that depression changes the wiring of patients' brains. 

Read : Depression May Affect Brains Of Young Girls And Boys Differently; Could Lead To Sex-Specific Treatment

"There is an urgent need to provide treatment for depression and an improved understanding of its mechanisms will give us a better chance of developing new and more effective methods of treatment,” study author Heather Whalley said in a recent statement.

The team used a technique known as diffusion tensor imaging to map the structure of white matter of 3,461 people who were involved in the UK BioBank, a national research resource.

Another recent study published earlier this month revealed that depression has a measurable physical effect on the brain, and that these effects may differ between males and females. The research used MRI scans to show that the brains of depressed adolescent girls and boys were different, with males showing decreased activation in the cerebellum, but girls not showing the same structural changes. Study co-author Jie-Yu Chuang previously told Medical Daily that these differences could mean that young boys and girls with depression may benefit from different types of treatment. For example, the decreased activation of the cerebellum in young boys suggests that depressed boys may be more engaged in thinking about themselves.

“As a result, we would perhaps encourage more social activity for depressed boys as a treatment,” Chuang told Medical Daily.

At the moment, this remains a hypothesis, but these two new studies do help to show that depression is not just a state of mind; it's also a physical condition that affects the body. According to Whalley, the Edinburgh team's next step will be to look at how the absence of these brain changes may relate to better protections from “distress and low mood” in order to see if reversing these changes may reverse depression symptoms.

Source: Shen X, Reus LM, Cox SR, et al. Subcortical volume and white matter integrity abnormalities in major depressive disorder: findings from UK Biobank imaging data. Scientific Reports . 2017

See Also:

Depression Not Just A Mental Illness; It's A Systemic Disease That Affects The Entire Body

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