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Some researchers believe their work will alter the way people think about depression, reducing the stigma associated with it. Their studies link symptoms to glitches in brain function, making depression a brain disease similar to diseases found in other body organs. The researchers reason that more people with a mental health diagnosis may ask for help when they realize their problem is physical.
One such researcher is Dr. Craddock, Director of Imaging at the Child Mind Institute. He uses MRI scans to study the brain’s “default network.” The default network is a brain area known to be more active when the mind is unfocused or at rest, such as when a person’s thoughts are wandering. When we put our mind to a task, as when doing a math problem or writing a poem, the default network is less active.
Dr. Craddock theorized that when depressed individuals pull their mind away from wandering to focus on an activity, their default network has difficulty switching gears and remains active. He tested this by using MRI pictures to observe blood flow in the default network area when people’s minds were wandering, and when they focused on a task.
Those test subjects that were diagnosed with depression had a harder time switching their brain into focus mode than the non-depressed participants. The default network in the depressed brains seemed bent on remaining active.
Helen Mayberg, M.D. at the Emory University School of Medicine has been studying a part of the brain called the subgenual cingulate. She has been treating severely depressed people—who did not respond to other treatments—by targeting the subgenual cingulate with deep brain stimulation, a technique that involves implanting electrodes into the brain. Her success in helping these depressed individuals suggests that problems with the subgenual cingulate are part of depression pathology.
These researchers sincerely believe that people with depression cannot stop negative or depressive thoughts by telling themselves, “Cut it out,” any more than a diabetic can lower their blood sugar by saying, “Glucose, go down now.” Although no one is arguing that lifestyle choices are unimportant in managing any illness, scientists such as Mayberg and Craddock hope to lift the burden of stigma by revealing the physical abnormalities underlying depression.
Source: Brain and Behavior Research
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