For many years, studies have shown that the hippocampus region of the brain is smaller in people with depression than in those people without any symptoms of depression. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that directly impacts how we process life situations, memory and learning, as well as the ability to understand spatial contexts. Previous studies that examined the hippocampus with relation to depression only looked at the brains of people after they were already diagnosed with depression. But a new study sought to determine if the reduced hippocampus was a result of the depression, or if a smaller hippocampus was a risk factor for developing the symptoms of depression. The researchers chose to examine a large body of test subjects, selecting elderly people for their participants, and examined them over a period of 10 years. They evaluated the subjects at the onset of the study to determine the baseline measurement of the hippocampus. The researchers followed up with the subjects 5 and 10 years later and conducted additional brain scans at each marker. At the onset, and again at the middle and conclusion of the study, the researchers also assessed the subjects for any symptoms of depression or presence of depressive conditions.
Dr. Tom den Heijer, corresponding author of the study, explains the results. “We found that persons with smaller hippocampus were not at a higher risk to develop depression. In contrast, those with depression declined in volume over time. Our study therefore suggests that a small hippocampal volume in depressed patients is more likely an effect of the depression rather than a cause.”
John Krystal, editor of the journal that published the study, Biological Psychiatry, said, “The principal importance of this type of research is that it may provide insight into age-related impairments in the function of the hippocampus.”
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