Can Brain Activity Predict Future Depressive Symptoms?

In a study conducted at the University of Toronto, researchers found that when a person who has suffered depressive symptoms in the past is exposed to a sad experience, their brain’s response to the sadness can foretell if they will fall into a depressive episode again. “Part of what makes depression such a devastating disease is the high rate of relapse,” said Norman Farb, a PhD psychology student and lead author of the study. “However, the fact that some patients are able to fully maintain their recovery suggests the possibility that different responses to the type of emotional challenges encountered in everyday life could reduce the chance of relapse.”

Researchers used MRI’s to monitor the brain activity of 16 people who had been previously depressed, and a control group. The participants were monitored as they watched sad movies. After 16 months, nine of the 16 people had relapsed into depression. The researchers examined the MRI’s of those who did relapse, and compared them to the MRI’s of those who did not, and against a control group. The results showed that those who relapsed had more activity in the front region of the brain, the medial prefrontal gyrus, thought to be responsible for the development of obsessive negative thoughts. Those with no depressive symptoms displayed a higher level of activity in the back region of the brain, thought to generate feelings of acceptance and impartiality.

“Despite achieving an apparent recovery from the symptoms of depression, this study suggests that there are important differences in how formerly depressed people respond to emotional challenges that predict future well-being,” said Farb. “For a person with a history of depression, using the frontal brain’s ability to analyze and interpret sadness may actually be an unhealthy reaction that can perpetuate the chronic cycle of depression. These at-risk individuals might be better served by trying to accept and notice their feelings rather than explain and analyze them.”

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gerald


    June 2nd, 2011 at 2:22 PM

    Although the efforts are to be commended,I don’t see this being useful in everyday life.You’re not going to run your aunt to the hospital for a scan everytime there’s something unpleasant-just to check whether she would relapse into depression.

  • tess b

    tess b

    June 3rd, 2011 at 4:32 AM

    The brain is such a map of one’s life- it tells the story that we do not even realize that it can tell!



    June 3rd, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    Hmm…We are getting close to mapping everything in our body to predict what re next thing this ‘machine’ will do, aren’t we? :)

  • KAMI


    June 4th, 2011 at 4:42 AM

    Not sure that I am buying into this. It is kind of like telling someone “ok you have gone through this and chances are you will go through this again”. So if you go around telling someone this then chances are this is how they will process their response the next time something happens that could potentially trigger that in them. I know that the basis of science is to do something good for people, and I think that we could all agree that most of the time it does. But you also have to admit that there are certain instances when things can be encouraged or hypothesized that may or may not be there.

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on