Acera Health

How Depression Affects the Brain


Depression is the world’s top cause of disability. However, there’s still much to be uncovered with this pathology. This condition is much more than simply feeling blue or down. It can actually change a person’s brain physically, affecting how they feel, act, and think. It can change the chemistry of their brain. It can change the functionality of their brain. If a person is looking to better control their mental state and which treatment option is most suitable for their situation, they first need to understand depression and the brain.

Most individuals can recognize depression and how it looks on the outside, meaning an individual’s behavior. However, medical understanding continues to evolve when it comes to the disease’s actual progression and the different treatments for it. Additionally, while the true cause of depression is unknown, there are certain factors that make developing depression more likely in certain individuals, such as genetics.

Around 6.7% (one in 15 adults) are affected by depression in any given year. Approximately 16.6% (one in six individuals) will experience this disease at some point in their life. It can occur at any time, but generally, it seems to first appear in the late teenage years to mid-20s. Also, women have a higher risk of experiencing depression than do men.

What is Depression? 

Depression is a serious and common health condition that adversely affects the way a person feels, thinks, and acts. The good news is, it’s also very treatable. When an individual has depression, it causes them to feel sad or down and/or lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. Various physical and emotional issues can result from depression and it can reduce a person’s ability to function at home and at work.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression 

Symptoms of depression can vary. They can range from being mild to severe. Some symptoms of depression include:

  • Loss of pleasure or interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Having a depressed mood or feeling blue, down or sad
  • Sleeping too much or having difficulty sleeping
  • Appetite changes — weight gain or loss unrelated to dieting
  • Increased fatigue or loss of energy
  • Increased purposeless physical activity (i.e. pacing, not being able to sit still, handwringing), slowed speech or movements (must be severe enough where others can easily observe these actions)
  • Trouble concentrating, thinking, or making decisions
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

A person must be experiencing the depression symptoms for a minimum of two weeks and must show a change in their previous functioning level to receive a depression diagnosis.

In addition, medical conditions (i.e. a brain tumor, thyroid issues, or a vitamin deficiency) can mimic depression symptoms therefore it’s essential general medical causes are ruled out.

How Depression Affects the Brain 

Depression and the brain is very real. Depression involves neurotransmitters, on a chemical level. Neurotransmitters are like messengers that carry signals between neurons or brain cells. The brain’s nerve cells use these neurotransmitters to communicate with one another. These messages being sent by the neurotransmitters are thought to contribute to mood regulation.

A person’s brain controls a number of things, including:

  • Memories
  • Thoughts
  • Vision
  • Breathing
  • Senses
  • Emotions
  • Temperature
  • Hunger

It pretty much controls all the different processes that regulate the body. Depression can have an impact on the way the brain regulates functions like these. Depression can change the brain physically, when left untreated, and disrupt brain functionality, including:

1. Cause the Cells of the Brain to Malfunction

When an individual’s brain is continually being stressed or in a state of anxiety, the brain’s stem cells may start to malfunction. When cells are malfunctioning because of anxiety, the amygdala-hippocampus connection becomes very rigid, keeping the brain in a continual fight or flight response state. And, malfunctioned cells can make a person more susceptible to other mood disorders and mental health issues down the road.

When cells malfunction due to depression, it could indicate less oxygen flow to the brain. Decreased oxygen flow to the brain can lead to:

  • Brain cell death
  • Brain cell injury
  • Inflammation

2. Shrink Brain Areas that Regulate Cognitive Function

MRIs and other types of brain imaging tests show that individuals who live with depression struggle with abnormalities in the brain areas in charge of cognitive functions, such as:

  • Memory
  • Problem-solving
  • Planning and executing activities

Not only this, but untreated depression can also shrink different brain regions, including the hippocampus, which is the brain region mainly in charge of long-term memory. The hippocampus contributes to emotional response regulation. Continous, severe mood-changing symptoms lead to this region of the brain to shrink.

Hippocampus damage can also obstruct social behavior because it prevents a person from being able to interpret and respond to information correctly. Hippocampus atrophy can also impact a person’s ability to effectively use language.

3. Brain Inflammation

New links are being made between depression and inflammation.

There’s knowledge about how some individuals with depression have abnormal immune system activity. But, whether it’s inflammation that’s causing the depression or the depression is causing inflammation is still not clear.

When it comes to depression and the brain, inflammation of the brain during depression stems from the length of time an individual has been struggling with depression. This results in substantial brain inflammatiom likely being relevant in long-term depression.

A study in 2018 found that individuals who were struggling with untreated Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) for more than 10 years, experienced 29% to 33% more total distribution volume of translocator protein (this indicates brain inflammation) than individuals who struggled with untreated depression for less time. 

Since inflammation of the brain can lead to the brain cells dying, it can result in numerous complications, including reduced neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change as an individual ages) and shrinkage.

Inflammation of the brain can also result in decreased neurotransmitter functioning.

How to Get Help 

Depression is a mental health condition that has many facets (multifacted). For symptoms to improve, it’s likely that a combination of approaches will be required, including:


Therapy is generally an efficient depression treatment. It helps in three essential ways, by helping people:

  • Identify areas of their life that have caused them intense and chronic stress
  • Get an understanding of ways to process their emotions and think more flexibly and reflectively during chaotic or stressful life events, which helps to decrease stress and increase insight during these life events and after
  • Strategize more effective ways to manage stressors with more ease and confidence or navigate their life without as many stressors

Group and cognitive therapy, particularly methods that include mindfulness and stress-relieving techniques, make a good source of support and help individuals overcome mental health-related stigmas.


Antidepressants can help individuals currently experiencing a depressive episode avoid the physical changes depression and the brain can bring on. They can be efficient in keeping the psychological symptoms that come with depression under control as well.

Combining antidepressants and psychotherapy can be a highly effective way to help individuals both cope with their symptoms and tackle the physical changes.


Exercising regularly can make a significant difference for people struggling with depression. Exercise can help with both brain changes and psychological symptoms. In fact, one review showed after exercising three times a week for a 12- to 24-week period; individuals noticed a medium to a large decrease in their symptoms. 

Also, exercise helps activate brain functioning and improve hippocampus structure, and provides various other benefits. 

For individuals struggling with depression, the best types of exercise are:

  • Resistance
  • Aerobics
  • Mind-body exercises

Residential Mental Health Treatment with Acera Health

This form of treatment involves the depressed individual staying at a professional mental health center. They’ll live among other patients in the facility during their treatment. A whole range of support from therapists and specialist doctors will be accessible.

This treatment gives them the space and time they require away from day-to-day life to focus on their mental health recovery.

People dealing with depression don’t have to try and fight their condition alone. There is help available to them that can benefit them in so many ways. Treatment programs and medication can help with depression and the brain. Cutting-edge, evidence-based treatment programs at Acera Health are put in place to help depressed individuals regain their zest for life.  


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