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The Neurobiology of Depression: How Depression Works in the Brain

A woman struggling with depression lying on the couch.
If you’re suffering from depression, learn how it works on a neurological level.

The brain may be the mightiest organ of all, controlling every function in our body including muscle movement, breathing and even our reactions to outside events. However, even the strongest of organs can be susceptible to problems that cause it to not function as it should.

When you suffer from a mental health disorder such as depression, it affects your behaviors, emotions and thoughts. Unlike small moments of sadness, it can be exhausting and overwhelming to struggle with feelings of hopelessness for days, weeks or even months. While it won’t solve any symptoms, it can feel like a relief to at least know how depression works in your brain.

The Brain and Depression

Based on current research, the parts of the brain that play the largest roles in depression are the hippocampus, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex:

  • The hippocampus — Located near the center of the brain, this area stores memories and regulates the hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is released when you experience stress, including during bouts of depression. When excess cortisol is sent to the brain because of a stressful event or chemical imbalance, it affects the ability to create new brain cells. Healthy brains will produce new brain cells in the hippocampus, but in a brain suffering from depression, high levels of cortisol can slow down this production. This causes the current brain cells in the hippocampus to shrink, leading to memory issues.
  • The amygdala — Found near the base of the brain between the hypothalamus and the hippocampus, this area controls emotional responses. When you experience depression, this area enlarges and becomes increasingly active due to the exposure to excess cortisol from the hippocampus, leading to disrupted sleep and activities. It can also mean unbalanced amounts of other hormones and chemicals.
  • The prefrontal cortex — Located at the very front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex regulates decision-making, the formation of memories and emotion regulation that will be stored in the hippocampus. Along with the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex also seems to shrink with excess levels of cortisol.

Research shows that because of these discoveries, cortisol levels play a key role in depression. In a healthy brain, cortisol levels are the highest in the morning and decrease as the day goes on. However, in people suffering from depression, cortisol levels stay heightened, making it difficult to function throughout the day.

How Treatment Can Affect the Neurology of Depression

Balancing the levels of cortisol and other chemicals can help reverse shrinking of areas of the brain, treat memory problems and decrease the symptoms of depression. To balance cortisol levels, medication is typically prescribed. Psychotherapy is also often paired with medication, as it can alter brain structure and help alleviate symptoms.

Brain health can also be improved through non-medical paths, such as:

  • Healthy eating — Healthy foods and regular activity stimulates the brain and fortifies the communication between brain cells.
  • Regular sleep patterns — A restful night’s sleep helps to grow and repair brain cells.
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol — Drugs and alcohol can impair communication between brain cells, further impairing memory.

If anti-depressants and other solutions haven’t relieved your depression, mental health treatment is available. The Raleigh House offers residential and outpatient treatment for depression where you’ll learn more about your mental health disorder and discover ways to manage your symptoms.

Experience Expert Mental Health Treatment at The Raleigh House

When you’re going through depression, you may feel alone and isolated, as though no one understands the way you feel. But there are ways to break out of that hopelessness and find healing. The Raleigh House is here to offer you the support and understanding you need while getting help.

With over 10 years of experience treating addiction and mental health disorders, we offer evidence-based depression treatment designed to help you regain a fulfilling lifestyle. Our personalized treatment approach includes a variety of holistic therapies and evidence-based treatment to help you find a path to healing and healthy living.

Depression doesn’t have to rule your life. There is hope at The Raleigh House. Contact our admissions team today to find out more about our treatment program for mental health.

Call Now: 720-891-4657

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