New Canadian Study Links Brain Inflammation to Depression

Researchers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto have uncovered a link between inflammation in the brain and depression. Hot off the presses, the results of this Canadian study were published in January in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Psychiatry. This is the first time such a connection has been identified in a controlled laboratory setting and is already being described as a breakthrough in the ongoing effort to understand depression and improve anti-depression treatment methodologies.

In order to detect physical changes in the brain that might be associated with depression, the Canadian scientists performed brain scans on 20 medical patients who had been diagnosed with clinical depression and 20 scans on a control group of individuals who did not suffer from the condition. On average, the depressed study participants demonstrated 30 percent more inflammation in their deep brain tissues than the members of the control group, a notable and significant finding that revealed the presence of a clearly definable brain-based illness.

From a medical perspective, inflammation is a sign of an immune system response in reaction to infection or some sort of physical trauma. Interestingly—and apparently not coincidentally—several diseases known to cause consequential amounts of brain inflammation are also known to increase the risk of depression. The usual assumption in such cases is that depression develops from the stress and anxiety associated with the diagnosis of a serious, possibly life-threatening illness, but if this new research is correct, the relationship may have a more fundamental physical basis.

Currently 30 percent to 50 percent of depression victims do not respond to traditional recovery regimens, which normally combine psychological/psychiatric therapy with anti-depressant medications. Up until now, this fact has left mental health professions a bit mystified, but the Canadian research team suggests that undiagnosed inflammation may be the reason some depression persists despite aggressive intervention.

It is too early to speculate, but if these findings are confirmed after further study, it could lead to a revolution in the way depression is treated. Anti-inflammatory drugs could eventually replace or at least supplement the medications currently being used to manage this illness, which would be a positive development since anti-depressants are powerful drugs that occasionally produce troubling side effects. Exercise and adjustments in diet are known to help arrest inflammation in some cases, so it wouldn’t be surprising if future research verifies the utility of natural treatments for depression that don’t involve prescription medicines.

A Hidden Factor Uncovered?

The rate of depression among women is almost twice as high as the rate among men. According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, on an annual basis approximately 9.5 percent of American women (one in 10) will suffer from symptoms consistent with clinical depression. For women in the 40 to 59 age group, the rate is an astonishing 12.3 percent, or one out of eight.

The usual explanations for these statistics focus on biology, specifically on the hormonal changes brought on by pregnancy, post-childbirth recovery and the process of menopause. These connections do exist and likely explain some of the difference between the sexes, but the discrepancy between the rates of depression in men and women is so great that medical researchers have remained interested in exploring this gender differential in more detail. If women are somehow more vulnerable to the mechanisms that cause brain inflammation, that might partially explain why they suffer from depression more frequently.

Of course, some of the biochemical changes in the body and the brain that women undergo at certain times of their lives might lead to a greater incidence of inflammation. Mental health conditions are complex, and the precursors, symptoms and physiological correlates of these disorders are often more intertwined than they would appear to be at first glance. It is even possible that brain inflammation is more of a side effect of depression than a cause, in which case treatment of it alone would be unlikely to lead to significant improvement in those suffering from this illness.

But in the end, it may be misleading to talk of cause and effect in these matters. Most researchers and therapists believe depression affects the whole of the body and the mind, and as such will respond best to a comprehensive rehabilitation plan that includes treatment options for each co-occurring disorder or symptomatic byproduct. If the depression-brain inflammation connection is verified by further research, addressing that inflammation with medication or other healing strategies will inevitably become a part of the standard treatment protocol—and many depression sufferers are likely to benefit greatly because of it.

Posted on May 5th, 2015
Posted in News

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