In Part 2 of our neuroscience expert series with social media science communicator Ben Rein, I sat down with him to talk about major depressive disorder and how it affects brain chemistry and function in surprising ways.
Rein, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, has built a large following after one of his videos went viral in 2020. He has since dedicated his platform to educating people about neuroscience topics, creating engaging short videos on his platform for over 600,000 tick tock followers. (Scroll down to see our full talk on the brain and depression.)
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Major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression, is characterized by a persistent depressed mood or loss of interest in activities that ultimately interfere with daily living. When we’re depressed, Rein explains, certain parts of our brain can actually shrink and lose gray matter volume. (Gray matter is the cell bodies of neurons). These areas include the hippocampus, which controls your memory and learning, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls higher-level thinking.
While there are many studies on clinical depression, neuroscientists like Rein aren’t exactly sure what’s going on in the brain when people have the condition. There are currently two popular treatments for depression: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and prescription antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs, in particular, have been effective in treating depression, an effect likely caused by increased serotonin signaling.
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The cause of depression has been much debated over the past few decades, although some researchers have theorized that a lack of serotonin in the brain can cause depression. However, a review was published in the magazine last month Molecular Psychiatry refutes this hypothesis. “Our comprehensive review of the major lines of research on serotonin shows that there is no convincing evidence that depression is associated with or caused by lower serotonin concentrations or activities,” the authors note.
However, that doesn’t mean you should avoid SSRIs if you’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression. “It doesn’t have to be the problem to be the solution in the brain,” says Rein.
So are there actually ways to prevent depression or other mental disorders? According to Rein, there are a few sensible things you can do:
- Get adequate sleep every night
- Eat healthy
- Exercise regularly (yoga, in particular, has been linked to positive results)
- Try mindfulness practices like meditation
- Avoid social isolation