Depression: A Brain Shrinker?

June 2, 2009 at 2:21 pm 2 comments

image A growing number of studies reveal that positive attitudes, exercise and staying socially active seem to help protect the brain against dementia and cognitive loss.  There are many  reasons (both known and suspected) these strategies seem to work,, but a common thread between  them?  They all reduce the risks and  severity depression.  .

Why Is That Important?

Because depression may literally shrink  the brain – or at least part of it.

A sea-horse shaped element deep inside the brain, the hippocampus is crucial in forming new memories, and is part of the system that regulates emotion.   And multiple studies have shown that the hippocampus is an average of 10-15% smaller in people diagnosed with major depression. Further, the longer a patient is depressed, the smaller the hippocampus is, suggesting the effect is cumulative.

How does it happen? The researcher’s aren’t sure yet, but  it likely has to do with the stresses associated with chronic depression.   Ongoing stress subjects the brain to a cascading  biochemical cocktail  that gradually kills off cells in the hippocampus, as well as reducing the number of new cells produced in that area of the brain.  (And the hippocampus is one of the most prolific when it comes to neurogenisis, or the creation of new brain cells).

It’s not entirely clear if depression is the cause of the reduction in the hippocampus, or if the reduced size of the hippocampus is responsible for depression, but the current thinking seems to be that the effect goes both ways, explaining the downward spiral effect of depression.   In other words.. stress reduces the size of the hippocampus, which reduces our ability to process emotion effectively, which causes more stress and reduces the size of the hippocampus, etc, etc.

Seniors, Depression, Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Seniors are at special risk for depression — the loss of spouses and long term friends, frequent feelings of isolation, physical challenges, illness, various medications and a common sense of loss of purpose and connection with the world around them are frequent contributors.

And depression is widely accepted as a risk factor for developing dementia and other cognitive disorders.  The effects on the hippocampus begin to explain why that might be true, on a purely physical basis.  On an emotional basis, depression means the individual is a lot less likely to engage in protective measures like physical exercise, social contact, and a healthy diet.

But there is good news…

The damage to the hippocampus appears to be reversible.  A few early studies suggest that treatment with antidepressant drugs may help restore the damage, and non-medical tactics for battling depression like physical exercise, social engagement and intellectual involvement may have a dual effect. As well as changing the chemistry of the mind and body directly, these approaches are known to stimulate neurogenesis in the hippocampus, reversing the damaging effects of depression.

The Conclusion?

Seniors are at special risks of depression;  depression in turn increases the risks of dementia, Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders which seniors are already at risk for.

But reducing the risks  and effects of depression through treatment should also reduce the risks of dementia – and many of the strategies for treating and preventing both disorders (physical and mental activities, social engagement, sleep therapies)  are identical and likely all increase neurogenesis, reversing the damage to the hippocampus and reducing symptoms in both disorders.

Entry filed under: Purpose. Connection & Spirit. Tags: , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. kirkeberg  |  June 3, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    You rascal; You are everywhere.. You turned up on a search or I would not have known


    • 2. Tori Deaux  |  June 4, 2009 at 8:57 pm

      Hey Mike!
      Great to see you here. And who you callin’ a rascal, you rascal?

      Folks, this is Mike Kirkeberg, of He’s good people.


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About This Blog

A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
  • Physical Exercise
  • Cognitive Training
  • Stress Management
  • Social Interaction
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • A Sense of Purpose & Connection
Authored by Tori Deaux
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