Depression Under the Microscope

depression brodmann 25 neurobiology

It is easy enough to identify signs of depression in a fellow human-being, but what does it look like under a microscope? Research into this matter has revealed that it is indeed possible to identify physical manifestation of depression even on the cellular level. With depression becoming an ever-more prevalent health issue in the United States, hopefully this nuts-and-bolts approach to a holistic mental disorder will lend itself to the development of better preventions and treatment.

Today in the United States an estimated 1 out of 10 adults (about 17 million Americans) report having experienced some form of depression. Each year the USA is estimated to spend over 44 billion dollars on treating this disorder. In 2007 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that antidepressants had become the most frequently prescribed drug in America. While many patients will be afflicted with only isolated episodes of depression, still others experience depression as a chronic condition that may last interminably.

It is a commonly held misconception that a person with depression just needs to “snap out of it” or “look on the bright side.” While in many cases making lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise, sleeping regularly, and eating a healthy diet can make profound improvements in a patient’s life, still other cases of depression remain impervious.

Currently, science’s understanding of the neurobiology of depression is limited. However over the past years a number of key findings are pointing the way towards distinct and quantifiably identifiable biomarkers of depression.

One key finding announced on May 27th in the journal Neuroscience elaborated on how neurons in a depressed brain differ in their appearance from neurons in a healthy and resilient brain. The researchers were particularly interested in examining a specific region of the pre-frontal cortex known as Brodmann area 25 (also known as the subgenual cingulate). Deep brain stimulation of the Brodmann area 25 has in some cases been demonstrated to alleviate treatment-resistant forms of depression. However the mechanism behind this emotional recalibration switch is still unclear. When scientists examined this area of the pre-frontal cortex in mice that showed signs of depression, they discovered that the synapses, the minute gaps between neurons, were smaller compared to those of emotionally resilient mice.

Different kinds of depression may also manifest differently in a person’s brain. Research from Emory University identified that a patient’s responsiveness to the drug escitalopram could be predicted by measuring the consumption of energy in a region of the brain known as the anterior insula. Increased consumption of sugars in that area of the brain indicates a greater probability that a patient will experience a more favorable outcome from using escitalopram. In addition, higher sugar consumption in that area also correlates with a poor response to talking-based therapies. It is hoped that by examining depression under the proverbial microscope, insights such as these will contribute to the future development of better diagnostic and treatment tools for patients suffering from this complex disorder.

By Sarah Takushi


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