What causes depression?

What causes depression? – Harvard Health – Updated: April 11, 2017 – Published: June, 2009

It’s often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that figure of speech doesn’t capture how complex the disease is. Research suggests that depression doesn’t spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, depression has many possible causes, including

  • faulty mood regulation by the brain,
  • genetic vulnerability,
  • stressful life events,
  • medications, and
  • medical problems.

It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression. 

To be sure, chemicals are involved in this process, but it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high. Rather, many chemicals are involved, working both inside and outside nerve cells.

There are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life.

With this level of complexity, you can see how two people might have similar symptoms of depression, but the problem on the inside, and therefore what treatments will work best, may be entirely different.

Researchers have learned much about the biology of depression. They’ve identified genes that make individuals more vulnerable to low moods and influence how an individual responds to drug therapy.

One day, these discoveries should lead to better, more individualized treatment (see “From the lab to your medicine cabinet”), but that is likely to be years away. And while researchers know more now than ever before about how the brain regulates mood, their understanding of the biology of depression is far from complete.

What follows is an overview of the current understanding of the major factors believed to play a role in depression.

The brain’s impact on depression

Science, though, tracks the seat of your emotions to the brain.

Certain areas of the brain help regulate mood.

Researchers believe that — more important than levels of specific brain chemicals — nerve cell connections, nerve cell growth, and the functioning of nerve circuits have a major impact on depression. Still, their understanding of the neurological underpinnings of mood is incomplete.

Nerve Regions that affect mood

An fMRI scan, for example, can track changes that take place when a region of the brain responds during various tasks. A PET or SPECT scan can map the brain by measuring the distribution and density of neurotransmitter receptors in certain areas.

Areas that play a significant role in depression are the amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus (see Figure below).

Amygdala: The amygdala is part of the limbic system, a group of structures deep in the brain that’s associated with emotions such as anger, pleasure, sorrow, fear, and sexual arousal. The amygdala is activated when a person recalls emotionally charged memories, such as a frightening situation. Activity in the amygdala is higher when a person is sad or clinically depressed. This increased activity continues even after recovery from depression.

Thalamus: The thalamus receives most sensory information and relays it to the appropriate part of the cerebral cortex, which directs high-level functions such as speech, behavioral reactions, movement, thinking, and learning. Some research suggests that bipolar disorder may result from problems in the thalamus, which helps link sensory input to pleasant and unpleasant feelings.

Hippocampus: The hippocampus is part of the limbic system and has a central role in processing long-term memory and recollection. Interplay between the hippocampus and the amygdala might account for the adage “once bitten, twice shy.” It is this part of the brain that registers fear when you are confronted by a barking, aggressive dog, and the memory of such an experience may make you wary of dogs you come across later in life. The hippocampus is smaller in some depressed people, and research suggests that ongoing exposure to stress hormone impairs the growth of nerve cells in this part of the brain.

Research shows that the hippocampus is smaller in some depressed people.

For example, in one fMRI study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, investigators studied 24 women who had a history of depression. On average, the hippocampus was 9% to 13% smaller in depressed women compared with those who were not depressed.

The more bouts of depression a woman had, the smaller the hippocampus.

Stress, which plays a role in depression, may be a key factor here, since experts believe stress can suppress the production of new neurons (nerve cells) in the hippocampus.

Researchers are exploring possible links between sluggish production of new neurons in the hippocampus and low moods.

An interesting fact about antidepressants supports this theory. These medications immediately boost the concentration of chemical messengers in the brain (neurotransmitters). Yet people typically don’t begin to feel better for several weeks or longer. Experts have long wondered why, if depression were primarily the result of low levels of neurotransmitters, people don’t feel better as soon as levels of neurotransmitters increase.

The answer may be that mood only improves as nerves grow and form new connections, a process that takes weeks.

In fact, animal studies have shown that antidepressants do spur the growth and enhanced branching of nerve cells in the hippocampus.

So, the theory holds, the real value of these medications may be in:

  • generating new neurons (a process called neurogenesis),
  • strengthening nerve cell connections, and
  • improving the exchange of information between nerve circuits.

If that’s the case, medications could be developed that specifically promote neurogenesis, with the hope that patients would see quicker results than with current treatments.

Nerve cell communication

The ultimate goal in treating the biology of depression is to improve the brain’s ability to regulate mood.

We now know that neurotransmitters are not the only important part of the machinery. But let’s not diminish their importance either. They are deeply involved in how nerve cells communicate with one another. And they are a component of brain function that we can often influence to good ends.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay messages from neuron to neuron. An antidepressant medication tends to increase the concentration of these substances in the spaces between neurons (the synapses). In many cases, this shift appears to give the system enough of a nudge so that the brain can do its job better.

While every cell in the body has the capacity to send and receive signals, neurons are specially designed for this function. Each neuron has a cell body containing the structures that any cell needs to thrive. Stretching out from the cell body are short, branchlike fibers called dendrites and one longer, more prominent fiber called the axon.

A combination of electrical and chemical signals allows communication within and between neurons. When a neuron becomes activated, it passes an electrical signal from the cell body down the axon to its end (known as the axon terminal), where chemical messengers called neurotransmitters are stored. The signal releases certain neurotransmitters into the space between that neuron and the dendrite of a neighboring neuron. That space is called a synapse. As the concentration of a neurotransmitter rises in the synapse, neurotransmitter molecules begin to bind with receptors embedded in the membranes of the two neurons (see Figure 2 below).

The release of a neurotransmitter from one neuron can activate or inhibit a second neuron. If the signal is activating, or excitatory, the message continues to pass farther along that particular neural pathway. If it is inhibitory, the signal will be suppressed. The neurotransmitter also affects the neuron that released it. Once the first neuron has released a certain amount of the chemical, a feedback mechanism (controlled by that neuron’s receptors) instructs the neuron to stop pumping out the neurotransmitter and start bringing it back into the cell. This process is called reabsorption or reuptake. Enzymes break down the remaining neurotransmitter molecules into smaller particles

When the system falters

Brain cells usually produce levels of neurotransmitters that keep senses, learning, movements, and moods perking along. But in some people who are severely depressed or manic, the complex systems that accomplish this go awry. For example, receptors may be oversensitive or insensitive to a specific neurotransmitter, causing their response to its release to be excessive or inadequate. Or a message might be weakened if the originating cell pumps out too little of a neurotransmitter or if an overly efficient reuptake mops up too much before the molecules have the chance to bind to the receptors on other neurons. Any of these system faults could significantly affect mood.

Kinds of neurotransmitters.

Scientists have identified many different neurotransmitters. Here is a description of a few believed to play a role in depression:

  • Acetylcholine enhances memory and is involved in learning and recall.
  • Serotonin helps regulate sleep, appetite, and mood and inhibits pain. Research supports the idea that some depressed people have reduced serotonin transmission. Low levels of a serotonin byproduct have been linked to a higher risk for suicide.
  • Norepinephrine constricts blood vessels, raising blood pressure. It may trigger anxiety and be involved in some types of depression. It also seems to help determine motivation and reward.
  • Dopamine is essential to movement. It also influences motivation and plays a role in how a person perceives reality. Problems in dopamine transmission have been associated with psychosis, a severe form of distorted thinking characterized by hallucinations or delusions. It’s also involved in the brain’s reward system, so it is thought to play a role in substance abuse.
  • Glutamate is a small molecule believed to act as an excitatory neurotransmitter and to play a role in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Lithium carbonate, a well-known mood stabilizer used to treat bipolar disorder, helps prevent damage to neurons in the brains of rats exposed to high levels of glutamate. Other animal research suggests that lithium might stabilize glutamate reuptake, a mechanism that may explain how the drug smooths out the highs of mania and the lows of depression in the long term.
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that researchers believe acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It is thought to help quell anxiety.

Genes’ effect on mood

Every part of your body, including your brain, is controlled by genes. Genes make proteins that are involved in biological processes.

Throughout life, different genes turn on and off, so that — in the best case — they make the right proteins at the right time.

But if the genes get it wrong, they can alter your biology in a way that results in your mood becoming unstable. In a genetically vulnerable person, any stress (a missed deadline at work or a medical illness, for example) can then push this system off balance.

Mood is affected by dozens of genes, and as our genetic endowments differ, so do our depressions.

Another goal of gene research, of course, is to understand how, exactly, biology makes certain people vulnerable to depression. For example, several genes influence the stress response, leaving us more or less likely to become depressed in response to trouble.

One important goal of genetics research — and this is true throughout medicine — is to learn the specific function of each gene. This kind of information will help us figure out how the interaction of biology and environment leads to depression in some people but not others.

Temperament shapes behavior

Genetics provides one perspective on how resilient you are in the face of difficult life events

 Temperament — for example, how excitable you are or whether you tend to withdraw from or engage in social situations — is determined by your genetic inheritance and by the experiences you’ve had during the course of your life.

Cognitive psychologists point out that your view of the world and, in particular, your unacknowledged assumptions about how the world works also influence how you feel.

You develop your viewpoint early on and learn to automatically fall back on it when loss, disappointment, or rejection occurs.

Yet while temperament or world view may have a hand in depression, neither is unchangeable. Therapy and medications can shift thoughts and attitudes that have developed over time.

Stressful life events

As the previous section explained, your genetic makeup influences how sensitive you are to stressful life events. When genetics, biology, and stressful life situations come together, depression can result.

Stress has its own physiological consequences. It triggers a chain of chemical reactions and responses in the body. If the stress is short-lived, the body usually returns to normal. But when stress is chronic or the system gets stuck in overdrive, changes in the body and brain can be long-lasting.

How stress affects the body

Stress can be defined as an automatic physical response to any stimulus that requires you to adjust to change.

Every real or perceived threat to your body triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produces physiological changes. We all know the sensations: your heart pounds, muscles tense, breathing quickens, and beads of sweat appear. This is known as the stress response.

Medical problems

Certain medical problems are linked to lasting, significant mood disturbances. In fact, medical illnesses or medications may be at the root of up to 10% to 15% of all depressions.

Among the best-known culprits are two thyroid hormone imbalances. An excess of thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) can trigger manic symptoms. On the other hand, hypothyroidism, a condition in which your body produces too little thyroid hormone, often leads to exhaustion and depression.

Heart disease has also been linked to depression, with up to half of heart attack survivors reporting feeling blue and many having significant depression. Depression can spell trouble for heart patients: it’s been linked with slower recovery, future cardiovascular trouble, and a higher risk of dying within about six months. Although doctors have hesitated to give heart patients older depression medications called tricyclic antidepressants because of their impact on heart rhythms, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors seem safe for people with heart conditions.

The following medical conditions have also been associated with mood disorders:

  • degenerative neurological conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Huntington’s disease
  • stroke
  • some nutritional deficiencies, such as a lack of vitamin B12
  • other endocrine disorders, such as problems with the parathyroid or adrenal glands that cause them to produce too little or too much of particular hormones
  • certain immune system diseases, such as lupus
  • some viruses and other infections, such as mononucleosis, hepatitis, and HIV
  • cancer
  • erectile dysfunction in men.

This list has an obvious omission: Chronic Pain.

There is no doubt that the stress of having certain illnesses can trigger depression.

In other cases, depression precedes the medical illness and may even contribute to it. To find out whether the mood changes occurred on their own or as a result of the medical illness, a doctor carefully considers a person’s medical history and the results of a physical exam.

Medications

Sometimes, symptoms of depression or mania are a side effect of certain drugs, such as steroids or blood pressure medication.

Table 1 lists drugs that may affect mood.

Table 1: Medications that may cause depression

Antimicrobials, antibiotics, antifungals, and antivirals
acyclovir (Zovirax); alpha-interferons; cycloserine (Seromycin); ethambutol (Myambutol); levofloxacin (Levaquin); metronidazole (Flagyl); streptomycin; sulfonamides (AVC, Sultrin, Trysul); tetracycline
Heart and blood pressure drugs
beta blockers such as propranolol (Inderal), metoprolol (Lopressor, Toprol XL), atenolol (Tenormin); calcium-channel blockers such as verapamil (Calan, Isoptin, Verelan) and nifedipine (Adalat CC, Procardia XL); digoxin (Digitek, Lanoxicaps, Lanoxin); disopyramide (Norpace); methyldopa (Aldomet)
Hormones
anabolic steroids; danazol (Danocrine); glucocorticoids such as prednisone and adrenocorticotropic hormone; estrogens (e.g., Premarin, Prempro); oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
Tranquilizers, insomnia aids, and sedatives
barbiturates such as phenobarbital (Solfoton) and secobarbital (Seconal); benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium) and clonazepam (Klonopin)
Miscellaneous
acetazolamide (Diamox); antacids such as cimetidine (Tagamet) and ranitidine (Zantac); antiseizure drugs; baclofen (Lioresal); cancer drugs such as asparaginase (Elspar); cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune); disulfiram (Antabuse); isotretinoin (Accutane); levodopa or L-dopa (Larodopa); metoclopramide (Octamide, Reglan); narcotic pain medications (e.g., codeine, Percodan, Demerol, morphine); withdrawal from cocaine or amphetamines

 

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