Brain Images Of Depressed Adults Reveal Too Many Network Connections Related To Rumination

depression
Previously depressed young adults have hyperconnected emotional and cognitive brain networks, especially in the regions related to rumination. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

While "the unexamined life is not worth living,” too much self-reflection may be a big-time negative, or so say psychologists who believe rumination — when you think about a problem over and over without coming to a solution — is a risk factor for depression and for reoccurrence of depression. Now, a new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago plainly reveals the startling effects of rumination on the brain. Brain scans of previously depressed young adults showed hyperconnected emotional and cognitive networks, especially in the regions related to rumination, the researchers found. "Rumination is not a very healthy way of processing emotion," said Dr. Scott Langenecker, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at UIC.

Previous Studies of Depression

Two relatively recent studies of depression may provide insight to those who are frequently down in the dumps. A 2011 survey of more than 30,000 people found that, as expected, negative life events in childhood or early adulthood were the strongest factors when predicting whether or not you might be prone to depression and anxiety. But the study carried an important caveat; how much you ruminate and blame yourself for these past events determined, to a very large extent, how depressed or anxious you might become. In other words, you could possibly gain some control over depression by zealously regulating your thoughts.

A separate study published just last year found that depressed people have more abstract goals than their healthier counterparts, who tended to be more precise in their aims. While a depressed person, for instance, aims “to be happy,” a non-depressed person might aim to “add two more workouts to my schedule each week." The researchers believe less specific goals are more ambiguous and harder to visualize, thus they may offer less motivation. In essence, the fuzzy goal may be harder to achieve and so contributes to depression.

For the current study, a team of UIC researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine network connections in the brains of young adults between the ages of 18 and 23 while they were in a resting state. Among the participants, 30 had previously experienced depression though they were currently unmedicated, while 23 were healthy controls who had never experienced depression. "We wanted to see if the individuals who have had depression during their adolescence were different from their healthy peers," said Dr. Rachel Jacobs, research assistant professor in psychiatry and lead author of the study.

Upon examination, the team found many regions that are hyperconnected, “or talking to each other a little too much,” among the participants who had a history of depression, Jacobs explained, and these hyperconnected networks were related to rumination. The researchers also looked at cognitive control or the ability to engage and disengage in thought processes or behaviors; this is a predictor of response to treatment and also a forecaster of relapse. "As rumination goes up, cognitive control goes down," Langenecker noted.

The researchers plan to follow these young adults to see whether or not hyperconnectivities predict who will or won't have a recurrence of depression. "If we can help youth learn how to shift out of maladaptive strategies such as rumination, this may protect them from developing chronic depression and help them stay well as adults," Jacobs said.

Source: Jacobs R, Jenkins LM, Langenecker S, et al. Increased Coupling of Intrinsic Networks in Remitted Depressed Youth Predicts Rumination and Cognitive Control. PLOS ONE. 2014.

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