Neurological Differences in Those Resilient and Vulnerable to Depression

Early life stress (ELS) encompasses a broad range of experiences, including, but not limited to, childhood sexual abuse, emotional abuse, maltreatment, neglect, and loss of a parent. The ways in which children respond to these events vary, but it has been well established that ELS increases risk for psychological problems later in life, and in particular, depression. However, many children who have experienced ELS do not develop depression later in life. Neurological markers could provide clues as to which individuals may be more vulnerable to depression as a result of ELS.

To explore this issue further and determine what neurological indices could predict vulnerability or resiliency, Josh Cisler of the Brain Imagining Research Center and the Psychiatric Research Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences recently led a study comparing neurological imaging scans of a group of women between the ages of 18 and 44 years old. The women were categorized as having a history of ELS without depression (resilient – 7), ELS with a history of depression (vulnerable – 19), and having neither depression nor ELS history (control – 12).

Based on resting MRIs of the women, Cisler found differences in the three groups, with the most significant difference between the resilient and vulnerable women. Specifically, the women in the resilient group had more intact emotional processing and emotional regulation neural connectivity than the vulnerable women. Regions of the amygdala responsible for detecting and interpreting motivational cues were overactive in the vulnerable group, which has been shown to increase risk of rumination and negative mood. Lower neural efficiency suggests that vulnerable women may take longer to process information, thus putting them at increased risk for prolonged states of negative affect via emotional bias.

Cisler believes that these results shed light on how neurological functional connectivity can increase vulnerability to depression as a result of stress. He also noted that in this study, the severity of depressive symptoms did not influence vulnerability as much as the severity of ELS. In other words, the more severe and traumatic the ELS, the more vulnerable the women were to depression. Cisler added, “These preliminary results suggest functional neural connectivity patterns specific to ELS exposure and resiliency versus susceptibility to the depressogenic effects of ELS exposure.”

Cisler, J. M., et al. (2013). Differential functional connectivity within an emotion regulation neural network among individuals resilient and susceptible to the depressogenic effects of early life stress. Psychological Medicine 43.3 (2013): 507-18.ProQuest. Web.

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  • Linel


    April 29th, 2013 at 4:27 PM

    Depression does not necessarily have to come about after one has been mistreated as a child, but I would surmise that most anyone who has experienced will at some point in their lives wonder what they did to cause this and will experience even a mild form of depression or feeling low. How could you not? the best years of your life have been messed up by someone who did not deserve to be in your life in their first place. No matter how strong one is, there is a lot of healing that must go along with being damaged like this.

  • scarlett


    April 29th, 2013 at 10:38 PM

    while some would say we’re born with this, that were either vulnerable or resilient, the perpetuators of such abuse do not care what the victim is or how much effect the abuse is gonna have. theyre brutal all the same.

    but identifying this important characteristic could point to who needs what kind of hell and how much. that is very important and something we should look at more.

  • cellman


    April 30th, 2013 at 1:36 PM

    Resiliency is one thing. One gift from the above that went right in some people. But for others that are not so lucky, situations that are fine to the former may prove to be a big deal to the latter group.

    My question is simple-Can resiliency be learnt?Can we overcome the challenges and build ourselves to make us stronger and become resilient?

    Thank you.

  • Patricia Weatherman

    Patricia Weatherman

    May 1st, 2013 at 9:52 AM

    Living with the memories for the past 45+ yrs has been emotionally and physically draining. Im very vulnerable and resilient. I went through life with this heavy burden. I am a very spiritual minded person. But some things you can not mention. I’m an educated person. Married andstruggling. Raised 3 boys. Brief work with mentally disturbed children. Worked in a pharmacy for 3yrs, the ER at a trauma hospital, then Case mgt for inpatient
    care. I tried health insurance for 3yrs and finally medical transcription. Sounds like a
    good life right? But look closer, do you see the silent struggle, to forget the past, to force myself to move on, to know it wasn’t my fault, yet fight this strong sense of guilt that I could have prevented it or why didn’t I tell better than that why did I yell? You can run but you surely can’t hide. I hit the bottom after my beloved brother died. I had no one. People abandoned me. I was left with my mind, my conscience and my reasoning. The hole got deeper and deeper. My body just laid there. My reasonableness turned into reasons for living. I began to feel empty and soon I reach one of the many bottoms. Crying. Detached from people. Loss of appetite. Refusing to talk. Staying in bed with darkness as my comforter. As time pass I was called in some psychological medication which increased my suicidal ideation. Now with the plot thickening with the addition of a collapsing marriage I saw no need to live. I hated my marriage, memories and worse I hated me. I lost my ability to pray. I saw the once slight chance of hope closing fast. ….fast forward 8 years and im a strong woman who finally grab onto the one hand that helped me open my eyes and see a way up out of that hole. I’m now 4 years safe. I have resolved my ongoing issues of the past being my fault and I found a waybti allow that little child in me that was traumatized to be comforted so the adult me could move on.

  • Catherine longsworth

    Catherine longsworth

    May 2nd, 2013 at 2:15 AM

    Awesome story. Thanks for sharing. I too have struggled and am struggling with some of the same issues and you’re 4 years safe gives hope. I am only 4 MONTHS safe, so the struggle continues. Thanks again for sharing.

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