Mechanical engineers are no strangers to psychological issues, but a new study from McGill University and The University of British Columbia (UBC) has found that some people who have suffered depression can actually use their brains to cope.
The study, which was presented at the Association for Computational Neuroscience (ACN) Conference in Washington, DC, explored the neural mechanisms that underlie how people can overcome depression and the mechanisms that regulate emotions and emotions-related behaviours.
“The research was designed to shed light on the neural substrates underlying how we can regulate emotions,” says Dr. Rachel L. Shaffer, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at McGill and the study’s senior author.
“What we found is that there are some neurobiological systems that are involved in this process and these are things that are specific to certain individuals.”
Dr. Shaser, who co-authored the paper with Professor John C. Boudreau, an associate professor in the department of neuroscience and psychiatry at the UBC, said the findings could potentially help other people dealing with mental illness.
“It’s an important and timely research topic because of the prevalence of depression among the population,” Dr. Shatter said.
“We have found that in this population, depression is not just a psychological disorder but also a biological disorder, which means it affects the brain in a way that’s specific to each individual.”
Dr Shaser and her colleagues recruited a group of undergraduate students and asked them to complete a questionnaire that assessed their experience of depression, as well as their emotional state and the type of mental illness they had.
The students were also asked to rate the strength of their personality traits, including how they felt emotionally, mentally, and physically.
The researchers then created a computer model of the students’ brain, which they then analyzed using neuroimaging and fMRI technology.
The results showed that the neural systems that were different between the students and the rest of the population are similar in terms of the types of systems that evolved in the brain to deal with depression.
“People who suffer from depression have an imbalance in these networks, which in turn has an effect on how they function,” Dr Shaser said.
In the model, the network that regulates emotions was identified as a neural pathway called the ‘gut’ network.
“This network is associated with the regulation of the emotional response to other people, such as positive or negative affect,” Dr Boudette said.
The gut network is thought to play a key role in regulating the way we respond to other emotions, such a positive or painful emotion.
The model also found that certain brain regions were different in individuals with depression, with particular changes in regions involved in reward processing.
For instance, the regions involved with processing food reward were larger in those with depression compared to the rest.
In addition, the study found that people who suffered from depression had different types of neural networks associated with their personality.
“These are regions that are linked to social functioning,” Dr Kari K. Johnson, a researcher with the Institute for Molecular Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of the paper, said.
For example, the brain areas associated with working memory, which involves memory consolidation and processing information, were different for individuals who suffered with depression than the rest population.
“There are two types of working memory regions: those involved in long-term memory and those involved with short-term memories,” Dr Johnson said.
“In other words, you have a working memory that’s engaged in working memory tasks and you have this network of short-memory regions that’s connected to working memory.”
The research also found a brain region associated with emotions was more active in individuals who had suffered from depressive symptoms than in individuals without any symptoms.
“Our findings suggest that there’s an emotional processing network that’s more active when people with depression have more severe symptoms,” Dr Dora L. Miller, a research scientist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UBC who also participated in the study, said in a statement.
“In the context of a person’s emotional states, these regions are activated, and these findings suggest a mechanism for why depression is associated not only with greater emotional distress but also with decreased activity in these regions.”
The researchers plan to expand their research to examine more complex and specific neural processes in people who suffer depression and find out if those processes are related to different emotional states.
“As we continue to investigate the brain’s connection between depression and different types and levels of emotion, it will be important to understand how the brain is activated in these different kinds of states,” Dr Miller said.
Dr Shatter says she hopes the findings can help people in their recovery.
“Many people have experienced depression and are in recovery,” she said.”[I think] this study provides a way for people to get back on their feet, and they can start the process of rebuilding their lives.”