Depression “Tweaks” Disappointment Circuit in Brain

"People with depression process information more negatively than healthy people." Scientific American reports on new research exploring the brain circuitry underlying this imbalance. 

“An unusual chemical balancing act helps explain why people with depression attend more closely to negative information,” Simon Makin writes in Scientific American’s January 2015 issue.

Researchers studied the lateral habenula, “an evolutionarily ancient region deep in the brain.” Neurons in this region are activated by unexpected negative events—a reward is not granted, or unexpected punishment occurs. Researchers found that the balance of chemicals in this region controls the processing of negative events.

From the article:

The region is unusual because it lacks the standard equipment the brain uses to reduce overactivity: opposing sets of neurons that either increase activity by secreting the chemical glutamate or decrease activity by secreting the chemical GABA. [..]The researchers also showed that rats displaying depressive behaviors release less activity-dampening GABA and that rats treated with an antidepressant release more.

“These findings reveal a potential mechanism whereby antidepressants act to correct negative bias in depression,” Catherine Harmer, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, told Scientific American.

Here at Mindful, we’re exploring how mindfulness meditation, and brain training, can chart new pathways in the brain—perhaps we’re not destined to respond the same way to the same old emotional triggers. It’s part of a larger field of research exploring how well-being is a skill that can be learned, can change the brain, and produce physical benefits.

Recent research shows how Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) reduces depression and the risk of relapse. Zindel Segal, who co-founded MBCT and is author of The Mindful Way Through Depression, describes the goal for MBCT patients:

What we’re trying to get people to do is to anchor themselves in their experience so that when a negative emotion comes up in the mind, it can wash over them; it doesn’t…bring to mind all of the negative associations that for some people can happen very automatically. Instead they can find a different place for standing and working with these feelings, and as a result have much more of an option for selecting a response and influencing what happens next.

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