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When faced with mental health concerns, have you ever wondered: what is happening in my brain?

If so, you’re not alone. Many people who struggle with mental disorders can easily explain the emotional impact of their illness, but are stumped when faced with the question “what does depression do to the brain?”

Research in this area can be confusing, difficult to find or laden with medical terminology. There are several reasons for this. First, studies in regards to depression and neurology have been lacking. Researching mental illness can be difficult to conduct since there are many uncontrollable outside factors. Additionally, studying the brain is no walk in the park. The brain is perhaps the most uncharted territory in all of science.

Often, science can only point to an association between cause and effect when it comes to depression and the brain. Although research is ongoing and some of these questions may soon have answers, this article is meant to offer an overview on what we know now about the relationship between the brain and depression.

1. Limbic system changes

A quick mini-lesson on the brain: the limbic system resides in the central part of your brain and includes several important structures. You may have heard of the amygdala or the hippocampus before. These systems are also responsible for some crucial parts of your brain’s functionality. 

The amygdala deals with our emotional responses, including fear and anger. The hippocampus translates short-term thoughts into long-term thoughts (or memory) and helps out majorly with the learning process.

The gist of this information is that the limbic system is majorly important for emotional and behavioral responses. A study published in Translational Neuroscience has shown that people who struggle with clinical depression have structural alterations to their limbic systems that a non-depressed brain doesn’t have. This has major consequences on how we perceive and interact with the world and can explain some of the social, emotional and behavioral manifestations of depression.

2. Changes in other systems of the brain

The hippocampus and amygdala are not the only parts of the brain to feel the effects of depression. The prefrontal neocortex (the front of the brain) also differs in a depressed brain versus a normal brain. The prefrontal cortex, according to Current Psychiatry Reports, is the part of the brain responsible for rationalizing. It is also connected to the limbic system and helps regulate emotions. Moreover, the “reptilian complex,” the part of the brain we associate with instinct and some social skills, is affected by depression.

When you stop to think about the areas of functioning these parts of the brain are responsible for, like emotional regulation, rationalizing and social behaviors, we can easily make the connection to depression. We can even link personal experiences to these parts of the brain that may not be functioning at their prime.

3. Inflammation

According to Healthline, one of the things that causes depression in the brain is inflammation. Individuals who have been depressed for more than ten years have brains 30 percent more inflamed than individuals depressed for a shorter amount of time. Not only does that sound extremely uncomfortable, it likely contributes to depression.

Over time, inflammation in the brain can cause a host of other symptoms and issues. Included in the areas affected by brain inflammation: neurotransmitter functioning, memory creation and storage, learning and mood regulation.

4. Neurotransmitter functioning

A common phrase used when explaining depression is “chemical imbalance.” Either there is too much or too little of a chemical in the brain, but where do we go after that? Chemical imbalances in the brain are responsible for neurotransmitter malfunctioning, and neurotransmitters are responsible for sending signals and messages between nerve cells.

Some of these neurotransmitters you may have heard of – serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and GABA. Your brain relies on these chemicals for many sensations – mostly favorable. When these neurotransmitters aren’t performing to expectation, it takes a major toll on your brain.

Antidepressant medication directly addresses these imbalances by supplying the brain with chemicals that mimic the deficient chemical. Different medications work for different individuals because each person’s brain is unique and needs specific amounts of each chemical.

After all that scientific talk, if you’re still left wondering “how does depression affect the brain,” rest assured your mental health professional can help to clarify what depression does to the brain. There is no single or simple answer, and often the causes and effects are difficult to distinguish.

No matter the symptoms of depression you might experience, seeing help can help you effectively manage them. That’s why Pyramid Family Behavioral Healthcare offers therapeutic modalities to help address depression and other mental health concerns. Call (678) 325-3486 today or reach out for even more information on how PHP and IOP services can help you address challenges as they arise.

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