New research has found evidence that depression affects the brains of adolescent boys and girls differently. The researchers hope this finding will lead to sex-specific treatment for depression patients that will be more effective for young people living with this condition.

For the study, published online in Frontiers in Psychiatry, the team used an MRI to show that happy and sad words activated different parts of the brain in depressed young male and female patients. This suggests these patients may also benefit from different treatment, although at the moment it’s not clear exactly what this sex-specific treatment would look like. One limitation is that the study was conducted on adolescent patients, so it’s not clear if the same results would be found in adults.

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

“The brains of depressed adults and depressed adolescents are quite different,” study co-author Jie-Yu Chuang told Medical Daily in an email, explaining that more research must be conducted on adult patients to understand if these brain differences are lasting.

According to Chuang, in the email, the main purpose of this study was to better understand how depression affects young men. Because the overwhelming majority of adolescent depression patients are females, there is a lack of empirical information on how the condition affects young men. In an attempt to better understand the brains of young male depression patients, the researchers used an MRI to measure reactions to certain emotion-eliciting phrases and words. In doing so, they observed that sex-specific differences in the supramarginal gyrus and posterior cingulate cortex areas of the brain. In addition, young male depression patients also showed decreased activation in the cerebellum, something that was not seen in the female patients.

Depression is a mood disorder that affects not only how you think, feel and behave, but also how your brain functions, Healthline reported. The condition affects three main parts of the brain; the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala. The hippocampus is responsible for regulating cortisol levels, a hormone released during times of physical and mental depression. However, in depression patients, cortisol levels are often too high for too long, causing mood and even memory problems. These excessive cortisol levels can also cause the prefrontal cortex to shrink, an area of the brain involved with regulating emotions and making decisions. Lastly, depression can enlarge the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with regulating pleasure and fear, Healthline reported.  

We already know that depression overall affects men and women differently. For example, depression is far more common in women, and they are more likely experience lifelong episodes, but men are more likely to experience serious consequences from their depression, such as substance abuse and suicide.

At the moment, depression patients are more or less treated the same, regardless of their gender. This research may be a small step forward in changing this. While it's still too early to say, based on their research, Chuang speculates that these differences are rooted in the “default network” of the brain, a part of the brain that is most activated when a person is resting or daydreaming.

“One possibility is that, compared to depressed girls, depressed boys could be more engaged in thinking about themselves. As a result, we would perhaps encourage more social activity for depressed boys as a treatment,”  proposed Chuang, emphasizing that this was merely an educated guess.

Source: Chuang JY, Hagan CC, Murray GK, et al. Adolescent Major Depressive Disorder: Neuroimaging Evidence of Sex Difference during an Affective Go/No-Go Task. Frontiers in Psychiatry . 2017

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