What Animals Can Teach Us about Depression

Depression is one of the most frequent reasons that people find a therapist or counselor. Feeling down, deflated, hopeless, worthless, and unmotivated are all part of what makes up the experience of depression. It varies from individual to individual, and both the causes and effects of depression are complex and wide-ranging. In the past few weeks, several new studies on depression have been published. Though each of these studies involved animals, they may provide helpful insight into the human experience of depression.

Depression and stress was the focus of at least two such studies. One looked at zebra fish, a type of fish that is normally quite social, and put them in a stressful situation by isolating them from others. Most zebra fish continued swimming like normal, but those with a genetic mutation in their stress receptors displayed a depressed-like response: they hid in the corner and stopped swimming. What helped? Prozac. Of course, humans can also utilize therapy and counseling as alternatives or additions to medication. But the study does suggest that people more prone to stress are more likely to become overwhelmed, and thus depressed, when they encounter stressful situations. In this case, the goal of therapy may not be to address depressed emotions, but to address stress-coping mechanisms.

Sleep and depression are also closely linked in these recent animal studies. Human studies have already found a link between abnormal circadian rhythm and depression, but it’s unclear how they’re causally connected. But a new sleep experiment using hamsters shows that sleeping with even a dim light on raises depressive symptoms. It seems like such a small thing: all the researchers did was expose a group of hamsters to low level light at night. After eight weeks, they showed not only physical change (specifically in the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with depression), but also behavioral change. The hamsters drank less sugar water, a drink they usually like, “presumably because they don’t get as much pleasure from activities they usually enjoy.” Just like humans. Does this research ‘solve’ the puzzle of depression? No. But with each piece of knowledge that falls into place, therapists and sufferers of depression have one more tool in their belt to find a treatment plan that works for the individual.

© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. 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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  • Tim Hoggard

    Tim Hoggard

    November 22nd, 2010 at 12:39 PM

    I generally sleep with a little light switched on in my room. Everybody at home thinks it’s a little abnormal but I just cannot sleep without that little light switched on. So does it mean that it’s still causing me harm although I am adapted to it?

  • lou

    lou

    November 22nd, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    we have day and night differentiated for a reason.day to work and everything and night to relax and sleep.but most places in the world now celebrate night-life and this no doubt is not a great idea.

  • Charlotte

    Charlotte

    November 23rd, 2010 at 5:43 AM

    Great work! The more puzzle pieces that we can find the closer we are to solving many of these mental health issues that plague and haunt so many.

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