Published On: September 22, 2021
Reviewed On: September 22, 2021
Updated On: November 3, 2023
Depression can result in negative emotions, overreactions, reduced intellectual abilities, and a general sense of feeling down. These symptoms can range from mild to severe— with suicidal thoughts occurring in the most critical of diagnoses. All of these are just symptoms of depression, however. The underlying issues, and important areas of study regarding this disorder, have more to do with the actual changes depression can cause to the brain. Here, we’ll explore an answer to the question “how does depression affect the brain?”
What does depression do to the brain? Unfortunately, this question isn’t easily answered, because the effects of depression on the brain can be quite complex. What’s more, they continue to be studied, since we don’t understand everything there is to know about the relationship between our brains and depression. Even though researchers have more to learn about the cause, effect, and correlation between the brain and depression, they have been able to establish a foundational understanding of how depression affects the brain.
In short, depression is broadly associated with brain inflammation. But we don’t yet know if depression causes brain inflammation, or if it’s the opposite — that the inflammation is causing depression.
Researchers have been able to determine that depression directly impacts multiple areas of the brain, most of which are affected by a loss of gray matter volume (GMV). Gray matter is a type of brain material that’s dense with cells and needed for strong brain activity.
How depression affects the brain is multifaceted, and many areas of the brain may be impacted. Research has lead us to believe that depression affects the following areas of the brain:
These all must be addressed when taking a comprehensive approach to answering the question: how does depression affect the brain? When specific areas of the brain aren’t functioning properly, we can see many changes in behaviors and thought processes. Some of the more significant changes which capture what depression feels like include, but are not limited to:
The long-term answer to how long the brain is affected by major depressive disorder (clinical depression), as well as what type of effects can be expected, is still being studied. But research suggests the effects can be lasting.
Clinical depression at any level might have a significant impact on the brain, but the result of continued or repeated depression can be especially negative. There’s some evidence to suggest that the effects of depression on the brain compound over time, and some of these changes (for example, those to the hippocampus) in people diagnosed with lifelong major depressive disorder might be present even after years of a depressive episode.
Additionally, levels of translocator proteins also increase in people with depression. These brain chemicals are linked to inflammation in the brain, and studies show they can:
Even if levels return to normal, even temporary periods of reduced new growth and increased aging can still have potential lifelong impacts. One thing is clear: ongoing depression probably does cause significant, long-term changes to our brain.
Because of the complex and prolonged effects that depression can have on the brain, it’s a mental health condition that should be treated as soon as possible Thankfully, there are several effective treatments to consider if you’re dealing with depression:
Expert Insight“Talk therapy is beneficial; it gives us the ability to share and let go of the feelings and thoughts that are affecting us. Talking to a therapist is sometimes easier than sharing our feelings with a friend or relative, since there is no concern of judgement, disclosure, or other negative responses.”
In addition to these treatment options, a combination of a healthy diet, consistent sleep habits, regular exercise, therapy, and meditation can assist with how to manage depression. They might not address all your answers about what depression does to the brain, but these are practical ways to minimize many of the effects depression can have on your life.
If you’re living with depression, seeking professional treatment is the best thing you can do for yourself. You don’t have to suffer — there is help out there for you. If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate help, you should call 911. You can contact a psychiatrist for assistance with ongoing symptoms. Your psychiatrist can further answer your questions about how depression affects the brain and what type of depression you may be facing. Your mental health care provider will help develop a course of treatment that will get you back to the path of living and enjoying your life.
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Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC, was the Senior Clinical Manager at Talkspace until 2022, and is a clinical therapist licensed in CT and NY. A member of the American Psychological Association (APA), Kate completed her Master's degree in Counseling Psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She has over 10 years of experience working with adults on a variety of issues, specializing in eating disorders and working with people going through life stressors such as finding your purpose, career changes, and connecting with your intuition.