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6 Ways Depression Affects the Brain

Depression takes a toll on your whole being, including your brain. Even though depression feels endless, your brain has a unique capacity to heal. Let’s look at the brain changes that occur with depression that make negative thoughts and feelings intensify.

Depression in the Brain

1. Less Neuroplasticity

Your brain loses some of its ability to form new neural connections, making it harder to adapt to change or learn new skills. The good news is neuroplasticity can be restored. Exercising, social interaction, and brain training activities help rewire your brain.

2. Imbalanced Neurotransmitters

Depression is linked to low levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine — chemical messengers in your brain that regulate mood and motivation. Antidepressant medications work by adjusting these neurotransmitters. 

3. Hyperactive Stress Circuits

The stress response becomes overly sensitive, activating frequently even when no real threats exist. This can make you feel constantly on edge or worried. Reducing stress through relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation helps calm these overactive stress circuits.

4. Shrinks the Hippocampus

The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for forming new memories and connecting emotions to those memories. Unfortunately, depression causes this vital part of the brain to shrink in size. When you’re depressed, your body is in a constant state of stress and alarm. Your stress hormones, like cortisol, remain elevated, and high cortisol levels are toxic to the hippocampus. Over time, this stress and excess cortisol cause the hippocampus to atrophy or shrink.

With a smaller hippocampus, you may have short-term memory and recall issues and difficulty forming new positive memories or associating positive emotions with memories. This makes it hard to break out of negative thought patterns. 

Combining medication or therapy with lifestyle changes can help lower cortisol levels. 

5. Neural Connections and Brain Circuits

Depression weakens connections between neurons in the areas involved in motivation and pleasure. The connections between neurons rely on chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate. In depressed people, these neurotransmitters work differently, especially serotonin and dopamine.

Lower levels of these feel-good neurotransmitters are associated with depression, making it harder to experience pleasure and motivation. This makes it more challenging to learn and retain new information. Depression also changes neural circuits involved in emotional regulation and thinking patterns. The connections between the amygdala, which processes emotions, and the prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotions, are impaired. This makes negative emotions and thoughts harder to control.

6. Inflammation

Inflammation is your body’s natural defense against infection, but when it’s chronic, it can negatively impact your health and mood. Depression is linked to higher levels of inflammatory markers like cytokines in the blood, which may influence the areas of your brain involved in mood regulation. 

Are These Changes Permanent?

No — the changes depression causes in your brain are often reversible. While the connections in your brain can weaken from lack of use, creating new neural pathways through therapy and medication can help reverse the changes.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal therapy (IPT) have been shown to “rewire”  the brain by strengthening connections between neurons. CBT helps reframe negative thought patterns, while IPT focuses on resolving relationship issues that contribute to your depression. 

Reversing Depression’s Effects on the Brain

  • Exercise is one of the most effective ways to boost mood and stimulate the growth of new neural connections.
  • To promote good brain health, eat a healthy diet low in sugar and high in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids. 
  • Get enough sleep, limit alcohol, and avoid recreational drugs.
  • Seek counseling or therapy to learn coping strategies and address negative thought patterns. 
  • Antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) increase levels of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. 
  • Mindful practices such as yoga or deep breathing help reduce stress and increase awareness of your thoughts and feelings. 

The brain remains plastic, even in adulthood, meaning you can reverse these changes. Your brain can heal. If you are interested in depression therapy, Elument is here to help. Book an info session today to set up see if you're a candidate for ketamine-assisted psychotherapy

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