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 GoodTherapy.org.
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