Depression- what is it?
I’m sure we can all admit to sometimes using ‘depressed’ as an adjective for a crap day. “Gosh, I’m so depressed today, I hate my job.” Yes, yes, it’s natural to have down days, or a period of feeling low after an argument or losing your job or bereavement, but depression is classed as feeling low or down everyday for two weeks or more.
Life is hard! Feeling the strain in day-to-day requirements in life is common, so much so that 1 in 4 women will experience it and 1 in 10 men in their lifetimes. With mental health problems receiving more advocates in life to spread knowledge of diagnoses, we continue to fight the stigma of mental health and depression. It has all too often been thought of as something ‘weak’ people suffer from; people who cannot cope get down and out.
Following the tragic loss of actor Robin Williams in 2014, who was found to have depression, society seems to be opening their eyes to the fact that no matter how much money you have, how much stuff you have or how happy you ‘should’ be, nobody is immune to depression.
A new study, carried out by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, scanned the brains of 40 people, all of which who were without adverse physical illness, but half of whom were diagnosed with various levels of depression; the basic aim being to determine whether depression is in fact a biological problem, in part caused by inflammation in the brain.
The researchers were looking for the presence of microglia and cytokines in the brain- the immune cells which activate when the brain produces an inflammatory response. What they found was that every patient with depression showed inflammation in their brains, with higher levels in those with most extreme cases of depression.
Now, the brain does naturally become inflamed in certain circumstances, such as when somebody has cancer. This is generally a protective response. However, when the brain becomes more inflamed than is necessary, it can cause depressive side-effects, such as fatigue, low mood, anxiety and difficulty in sleeping.
Looking at this, new research is suggesting that inflammation is happening now independently of physical illness.
Dr Jeffrey Meyer, author of the American study, said:
Now we believe that inflammation in the brain is one [biological change] and that’s an important step forward.
Today’s anti-depressants do not work to reverse inflammation in the brain, and this is perhaps a reason why 10% of people do not respond to them, and 20%-30% do not respond to initial anti-depressant medication.
Who’s saying what?
Gary Kaplan, an osteopathic physician, says this sort of inflammation can be, in part, put down to a variety of behaviours and habits, such as sedentary behaviour, poor diet, smoking and alcohol abuse. When these behaviours happen, the brain launches into a full-scale immune response on a long-term basis, that only remains as long as the bad lifestyle habits do.
It has been proved that cytokines, which set off inflammatory responses, are stored in large quantities of body fat, so obesity is considered another factor, alongside rich, trans-fat diets, that promote inflammation.
George Slavich, a clinical psychologist at the University of California, sees depression as equal parts of psychology and biology- ‘I don’t even talk about it like a psychiatric condition anymore.’
But we want more evidence…
Some scientists have compared physical illness responses to psychological. For example, ‘sickness behaviour’ is how humans react and behave when we feel ill (come on, we all have a pity party, bored of feeling ill, tired and don’t wanna say farewell to the sofa!). Now, these reactions are important in order to prevent spreading of illness and to avoid doing more damage. People have compared this behaviour to that of depression. So, is there a common cause that accounts for both?
If that’s still not enough, evidence demonstrates that people with inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis tend to suffer more with depression. Likewise, people who receive cancer treatment in the form of drug interferon alpha, which boosts their inflammatory response, often become depressed as a side-effect.
So, this promising new data is a starting block for new treatments, and in fact a new way to look at depression. Recent trials have found adding anti-inflammatory medicines to anti-depressants improves symptoms. Yippee. We can hope that this changed the attitude towards depression, that it is not reserved for a specific type of person, but is open and a potential to anybody on a biological plain.