For the depressed brain, personal reflection is no picnic. That is the conclusion of a new study from the University of Liverpool, where researchers have discovered that individuals suffering from major depressive disorder experience a surge in brain activity when they think about themselves. The findings could refine clinical knowledge and illuminate new treatment strategies against one of the nation’s most common psychiatric disorders.

Published in the journal PLoS ONE, the study sought to determine how a depressed person’s view of themselves differs from that of a non-depressed individual. Specifically, the study authors wanted to know whether any actual physiological processes can be said to underpin the negative and sometimes crippling self-images that many patients harbor. The research was focused on the pre-medial frontal cortex –– an area of the brain that has been linked to personal reflection in previous studies.

To investigate, the researchers enrolled a number of individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder in an experiment with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The technology, which measures cerebral blood flow, allows scientists to monitor local activity within a subject’s brain. While the study participants were being scanned, the researchers asked them to use positive, negative, and neutral adjectives to describe either themselves or Queen Elizabeth I. This way, the researchers were able to differentiate between the subjects’ assessments of themselves and their assessment of a familiar yet removed figure.

"We found that participants who were experiencing depressed mood chose significantly fewer positive words and more negative and neutral words to describe themselves, in comparison to participants who were not depressed,” said senior author Peter Kinderman of the University of Liverpool’s Department of Psychology. "That's not too surprising, but the brain scans also revealed significantly greater blood oxygen levels in the medial superior frontal cortex –– the area associated with processing self-related information –– when the depressed participants were making judgments about themselves.”

Intriguingly, the surge in brain activity was only associated with the adjectives depressed subjects assigned to themselves. When they described the Queen, blood oxygen levels did not differ significantly from those recorded in a non-depressed control group. “Brain activity only differed when depressed people thought about themselves, not when they thought about the Queen or when they made other types of judgements, which fits very well with the current psychological theory,” lead author May Sarsam said in a press release.

Today, an estimated one in 10 American adults report symptoms of depressive disorders. The average age of onset is 32. According to Kinderman, the current findings could have significant bearing on future treatment strategies, as they shed new light on the neural processes whereby the depressed self-image sustains itself.

Source: May Sarsam, Laura M. Parkes, Neil Roberts, Graeme S. Reid, Peter Kinderman. The Queen and I: Neural Correlates of Altered Self-Related Cognitions in Major Depressive Episode. PLoS ONE, 2013