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A global research initiative reveals good and bad news about the effect of depression on our brain.
The bad news is that recurring, untreated depression can shrink the hippocampus, a brain structure important for the processing of emotion and memories.
The good news is twofold: not only can early depression treatment prevent the hippocampus from decreasing, studies indicate that damage to an already shrunken hippocampus is reversible.
What is lost when the hippocampus shrinks are the connections between its cells, not the cells themselves. The brain can form new connections given the right conditions.
So, while early treatment is best, it is never to late to get help for depression—and help may or may not involve taking an antidepressant. Activities such as psychotherapy, proper nutrition, supplements (e.g., fish oil, vitamin D), regular exercise, and social engagement are all viable treatment options for depression.
The study highlighting depression’s impact on the hippocampus involved 15 research institutes from around the globe. It was a collaboration that allowed scientists to examine the brain MRI data of 8,927 individuals; 1,728 of them had a major depression diagnosis.
Of the depressed participants, 65 percent had recurring depression, and these individuals had a smaller hippocampus. The more episodes of depression a person experienced, the smaller it was. Those experiencing their first episode of depression had a hippocampus of normal size.
These findings make it clear that only persistent or recurrent depression causes hippocampus damage, and that damage to the hippocampus is a consequence of depressive symptoms, and not their cause.
Our hippocampus, located roughly in the middle of our brain, plays a vital role in long-term memory function, in creating new memories, and linking emotions to our memories. It is easy to imagine how a diminished hippocampus would also diminish our experience of life.
So, if you are depressed, or suspect you might be, consult a doctor or mental health professional sooner rather than later.
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