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Depression Treatment And Neuroplasticity

effects of stress

Depression And Neuroplasticity

I have described, in other articles, how the brain goes on physically changing all our lives – the process does not stop when we reach adulthood. The quality of the brain, which allows it to continually restructure its architecture, neuroscientists call NEUROPLASTICITY (click here to read my article on this). The really exciting thing is, however, that it is now known, beyond all doubt ,that it is possible for us to very significantly influence our brain’s physical development throughout our lives in extremely beneficial ways simply by changing how we think and how we behave.

This discovery has enormous implications as to how psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety, addictions and many others will be treated in the (hopefully near) future.

Indeed, if, soon, more and more individuals suffering from depression and other conditions are treated by teaching them to manipulate their own brain structure through behavior changes and new ways of thinking, the need for medications will be reduced thus allowing many to avoid their sometimes negative side-effects  – in fact, studies now suggest that any positive effects anti-depressants have is largely due to the placebo effect (read my article on this by clicking here).

It is useful to give an example of a study that shows that what we think and do creates physical changes in the brain. In one particular study, a group of medical students underwent brain scans/imaging before and after weeks of intensive revision. It was found that the parts of the brain associated with this activity, by the end of their revision period, had become physically denser (due to the growing of more connections between neurons/brain cells).

This is similar to a study I referred to in another post involving London taxi drivers – after a long period of training (involving memorizing all of London’s streets and various landmarks) it was found that the area of their brain which processes spatial information had grown.

Whilst these two examples do not involve the treatment of psychiatric conditions, it is believed the same principles can be applied to future therapies. Research is currently at an incipient stage.

NEGATIVE NEUROPLASTICITY :

One of the reasons that depression is so insidious is that it leads to negative neuroplasticity. In very simple terms, this means :

a) when we are depressed, we think and act in negative ways which (b) stimulates regions of the brain involved in negative thinking and acting causing (c) these regions to grow. This leads to (d) further negative thinking and behaving – thus, a vicious cycle develops.

POSITIVE NEUROPLASTICITY :

Research is currently investigating if positive neuroplasticity can be created in depressed people to stop and reverse the above process. Again, in very simplified terms, this might involve :

a) encouraging and training patients to think and behave in more positive ways which (b) stimulates regions in the brain involved with positive thinking and positive behaviour causing (c) these regions to grow. This should lead to (d) further positive thinking and behaviour – thus, instead of a vicious cycle, a virtuous cycle is created and will hopefully keep going due to its own momentum.

THE AMYGDALA :

As this momentum builds, it is theorized that the regions of the brain that contributed to our depression will lose their power as  their neural interconnections wither away and atrophy due to lack of use. In connection to this idea, the region of the brain called the amygdala has been focused upon by researchers.

The amygdala (click here to read my article on this) is often over-developed and over-sensitive in those who have suffered childhood trauma due to the effects early adverse experience has had on its development. It is high activity in the amygdala that makes people feel anxious, distressed and fearful. A key aim of future therapies may therefore be to reduce connections in this brain region.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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