Clues to Depression Sought in Brain's Wiring

Imaging, Genetic Detective Work Suggest Why Disease Strikes

Brain scans comparing how talk therapy works on the brain vs. drug therapy.

Dr. Helen Mayberg's research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) slows down the "thinking" part of the brain, marked in blue, while the SSRI antidepressant Paroxetine worked to increase activity, shown in red, at the back of the brain. Dr. Helen Mayberg, Emory University hide caption

itoggle caption Dr. Helen Mayberg, Emory University
Brain scans comparing the effects of talk therapy vs. drug therapy.

Dr. Mayberg's research shows that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) affects the front part of the brain, the thinking part (left, blue), while the SSRI anti-depressant Paroxetine works on a more primitive region at the back of the brain (right, red). Dr. Mayberg, Emory University hide caption

itoggle caption Dr. Mayberg, Emory University
Brain scan with hippocampus marked.

Dr. Yvette Sheline found that depressed patients had smaller hippocampi (structure marked by boxes) than nondepressed people. In addition, her research shows that antidepressants protect the hippocampus from shrinking. Dr. Sheline, Washington University hide caption

itoggle caption Dr. Sheline, Washington University

Major depression afflicts one out of 10 adults, resulting in profound and disturbing changes in mood, energy, sleep, appetite and interests. Most patients, while in the grips of depression, are unable to function in their work or family life, and suicide is an ever-present risk.

While treating depression with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, has been around since the late 1980s, new brain imaging technologies and genetic detective work are rapidly revealing what can cause depression and how best to treat it. NPR's Michelle Trudeau reports.

Genetic Predisposition

Researchers found that if individuals had a certain form of a gene, they were more likely to respond to stressful events with depression.

A chart of their findings.

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