Familial Depression and the Brain

Research by psychiatrists at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons suggests a link between thinning of the cerebral cortex and a family history of depression. Whether the physical difference in the brain is genetic, or is rather a result of environmental factors associated with familial depression, is not yet clear.

What is clear is that brain imaging is providing more evidence that depression affects the brain, is affected and the brain, or both; individuals aged 6 to 54 years who were identified as “high-risk” for depression had an average of 28% less thickness in the right cerebral hemisphere than people identified as low-risk in this study.

Brain imaging may also help screen for individuals at risk of depression, and help understand their needs; the right cortex is associated with reasoning, planning, mood, and reading social and emotional cues—all areas that would be affected by and contribute to a depression.

The study, to be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was primarily the work of by Dr. Myrna Weissman and Dr. Bradley S. Peterson. “You’re seeing it two generations later, and you’re seeing it in both children and adults,” said Dr. Peterson, “and it’s present even if those offspring themselves have not … become ill.”

© Copyright 2009 by Daniel Brezenoff, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, therapist in Long Beach, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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

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  • Keith


    March 27th, 2009 at 12:24 AM

    This is really interesting to note. I guess that’s why people with severe depression cant seem to get over just having a bad day. The physiological factor probably keeps the person in a state of depression even when the cause is removed.

  • Hollis


    March 28th, 2009 at 12:31 PM

    Finally good to hear conclusive evidence that depression is indeed something that you just can’t snap out of. There is physiological proof that it is real.

  • Julie


    March 30th, 2009 at 3:08 AM

    I am a homemaker, a full time mom and a work from home professional. I find that some weeks are so full of things to do and those are the weeks I find myself slipping into depression. Rushing to meet deadlines and handling my family’s demands sometimes makes me very depressed. It feels like the chaos wont go away and when that feeling starts it takes weeks for me to recover.

  • Uma


    March 30th, 2009 at 4:32 AM

    What lifestyle and dietary changes can people prone to depression do? Is there a means of altering neural responses to change this tendency?

  • Fallon


    March 30th, 2009 at 11:34 AM

    Julie I think you may want to seek some help from the outside. Depression is nothing to mess around with. I think that it is great that you recognize these symptoms in yourself but they are not going to go away on their own. Maybe you are predisposed to develop depression or maybe there are environmental triggers causing the way that you feel. But no matter you should not have to deal with this alone and there are dozens of different therapies and medications or the combinations of those which might be able to help in your situation. There are too many people who think wrongly that they can handle this on their own, but from the voice of personal experience just know that this is not something that simply goes away. Sure it may be alleviated for a time but you will soon find that it may rear its ugly head once again and it may be worse the next time around. Get help now and you will be so glad that you did.

  • Alexis


    March 31st, 2009 at 1:14 AM

    Does insensitivity fuel or cause depression? I feel more women get easily depressed than men and it basically stems from lack of self esteem or lack of attention.

  • Olivia


    March 31st, 2009 at 7:13 AM

    And I am curious to know just how early these images can be seen in the brain? I mean could you have a scan done on a young child and see the predictors that he or she is predisposed to having a depressive episode later in life? Is this something you really want to know if there is no way to avoid it? It kind of gets into the issue of genetic testing and other such issues and figuring out if some things are better known about ahead of time. I am torn on the issue.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    April 2nd, 2009 at 3:00 PM

    Uma asks what life-style changes can help with depression.
    Here’s a short list:
    Excercise, deep breathing, and conscious eating can help. Going outside on a sunny day. Getting enough sleep. Listening to old tapes and ignoring the litany– maybe creating some new things to think about.

    I’m a yoga teacher as well as a psychotherapist- I know the value of sitting up straight, taking full breaths, and moving the body. This can all help and be synergsitic with psychotherapy.

  • Tawnee


    April 6th, 2009 at 2:16 AM

    I think Olivia has a good idea here. If they can check on depression at a very early age.. Is there anything that can be done? I am hoping in the future that there will be some scientific way of helping with depression more and more. I think it would prevent a lot of problems that is due to depression if we see more help and remedies for depression.

  • Tiffani


    April 9th, 2009 at 2:28 AM

    I guess a lot of people feel that people with depression can just get over it or that they bring it upon themselves. These studies show that this is not the case. If we’ve never dealt with depression in our own lives, we can’t assume that people with depression can just get over it. It’s nice this article points this out.

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