How Depression Affects the Brain

March 5, 2020

We often think of depression as purely a mood issue – it causes people to feel down, irritable, and maybe even angry. While this may be true, the problem with thinking of depression only in this way, is that it can oversimplify a very complex condition.

Depression not only affects mood, it also can cause physical symptoms in the body, like chronic pain and digestive issues. Furthermore, it can even have an effect on the physical structure of the brain.

Below are three ways that depression may affect the brain.

  1. Brain Shrinkage

    Studies have linked depression to volume loss in certain areas of the brain. While scientists aren’t sure exactly which parts of the brain can be affected and to what degree, it’s thought that the hippocampus, thalamus, amygdala, frontal lobe, and prefrontal cortices can be affected.

    While volume loss is associated with a decrease in function in these areas, these changes may not be permanent. Because the brain has neuroplasticity – meaning it’s capable of growth and change – it’s possible that volume that’s lost can be regained.

  1. Inflammation

    The link between depression and inflammation is still debated. Some experts believe that inflammation causes depression, others believe the reverse. Some experts say inflammation is only linked to certain depression symptoms, like sleep problems. Ultimately, there seems to be some kind of link between depression and brain inflammation.

    Severe, long-term depression is thought to cause the most significant brain inflammation. One study found that people who had been depressed for more than 10 years had roughly 30% more brain inflammation than people depressed for a shorter timeframe.

    Because brain inflammation can potentially cause brain cells to die, inflammation could contribute to brain shrinkage, problems with memory and learning, and less neuroplasticity.

  1. Lack of Oxygen

    The brain uses roughly 20% of the body’s total oxygen supply, making it sensitive to oxygen deficiencies. Insufficient oxygen in the brain could lead to inflammation, brain cell injury, or brain cell death.

    Some studies have linked hypoxia – a form of oxygen deprivation – with depression. Other research has linked states with higher altitudes to higher rates of depression, as well. But whether depression causes a lack of oxygen or vice versa is still being debated.

    Conversely, research has found that increasing oxygen in the body and brain could help reduce depression symptoms. Heart Rate Variability biofeedback training, breath-focused yoga, and hyperbaric oxygen chambers are just a few treatment options that have been linked to reduced depression symptoms through increased oxygen.

There’s still much research to be done when it comes to brain health and depression. The good news is that depression is treatable and changes in brain structure may be reversible. If you’re interested in learning about Neurocore’s med-free depression program or our counseling services, give us a call at 800.600.4096.

Legg, Timothy. (2018, October 24). “4 Ways Depression Can Physically Affect the Brain.” Retrieved from
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