At one time or another, we all suffer from bouts of sadness brought on by something such as a career disappointment, physical illness, relationship woes or financial strains. Sadness is a normal emotion. For most, this is transient often disappearing after a short while. However, when unrelenting stresses continue they can signal serious risks to our well-being especially if our coping mechanisms fail to provide relief. This allows depression to take hold and possibly cause serious harm. A recent article in Psychology Today outlines the differences between the two noting that depression, unlike sadness, is an abnormal emotional state and chronic mental illness, which impairs our thinking, perceptions and alters behavior. In short, when we are depressed, we are sad about everything!
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depression is so widespread across the U.S. that 8.1 percent of people over the age of 20 have depression over any given two-week period. And, nearly 6.7 percent have had a severe long-lasting episode within the last two to three years. The World Health Organization (WHO) also cites “depression as the leading cause of years spent with disability worldwide.”
For the majority, depression is episodic and abates within a matter of weeks or months; for others, depression can persist for years significantly affecting their quality of life. Depression also affects men and women differently. Women tend to gain weight, be more anxious and are more lethargic than men who are depressed. Women also tend to exhibit more suicidal thoughts and many of these symptoms may be related to inflammation of the brain.
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Manchester found that patients who were diagnosed with clinical depression and had suicidal thoughts had elevated levels of translocator protein (TSPO). TSPO plays a role in immune response and cell death. Their findings were published in Biological Psychiatry.
More recently, scientists from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Ontario, Canada, studied patients who had long term-depression (over a ten-year period and under a ten-year period) to determine what the health impacts were neurologically. These researchers found that during episodes of major depression, people’s brains would exhibit markers of brain inflammation according to their study published in The Lancet Psychiatry. Using PET scans, the team discovered that the concentration of TSPO –the marker for inflammation–was 29–33 percent higher in the brains of people who suffered with depression for more than a decade.
These inflammation markers were seen in three brain regions: the prefrontal cortex (which regulates cognitive functions related to behavior), the anterior cingulate cortex (heavily linked to depression and mood disorders, it regulates cognition and emotional processes), and the insula (which also plays a role in emotional functions). Those who had untreated depression for shorter periods still had higher TSPO concentrations than the brains of healthy controls.
According to the researchers, these results suggest that long-term depression should be treated as a different stage of the same condition, possibly requiring a different therapeutic treatment than depression in earlier phases.
This is similar to treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, which also share heightened brain inflammation. If depression is also characterized by an increasingly serious inflammatory response in the brain — then anti-inflammatory drugs may offer a new treatment option. CAMH researchers believe further studies should examine repurposing such medications for use in treating depression.
If you are suffering from depression for any length of time, see your doctor immediately before your condition worsens and impairs your thinking and well-being.
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