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Study: Depressed Patients’ Brains Can Rewire, Lifting the Gloom

The paper will be presented at as conference of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology

We are always learning new, mostly hopeful, things about the human brain. This one may help medics treat depression:

Scientists believe that the structure of the adult brain is generally rigid and incapable of rapid changes; now new work has shown that this is not true. German researchers have shown that in-patient treatment for depression can lead to an increase in brain connectivity, and those patients who respond well to this treatment show a greater increase in connectivity than those who don’t.

European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, “Scientists discover structure of adult brain — previously thought to be fixed — is changed by treatment” at Eurekalert (October 17, 2022) The paper will be presented at the 35th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology annual conference October 15–18.
Graph showing the increase in the number of
connections pre- and post-treatment for clinical depression/
Jonathan Repple

If that holds up, it’s good news for the 10–15% of the population that suffers from depression, considering how resistant to treatment depression can be:

The researchers, working at the University of Muenster in Germany, studied 109 patients with serious depression (Major Depressive Disorder) and compared them with 55 healthy controls. Their brains were scanned using an MRI scanner which had been set up to identify which parts of the brain were communicating with other parts, determining the level of connections within the brain…

Professor [Jonathan] Repple (now Professor of Predictive Psychiatry at the University of Frankfurt) said:

“We found that treatment for depression changed the infrastructure of the brain, which goes against previous expectations. Treated patients showed a greater number of connections than they had shown before treatment.

European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, “Structure of Adult Brain, Previously Thought to Be Fixed, Is Altered by Depression Treatment” at Neuroscience News (October 18, 2022)

Why is connectivity important? At ScienceAlert, Carly Cassella explains, “Decades of reinforcing neural connections can make the adult brain stubbornly resistant to rapid changes. Should our brain’s structure trap us in cycles of dark moods and thoughts, disorders like chronic depression can be extremely hard to shake.” It used to be thought impossible to shake but, as psychiatrist Eric Ruhe, not involved with the study, says, “This gives hope to patients who believe nothing can change and they have to live with a disease forever, because it is ‘set in stone’ in their brain”.

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns led to a significant increase in depression and anxiety worldwide. (Economist, October 11, 2021). We may hope it is temporary.

Another recent finding of interest is that the human brain rewires itself in middle age. After we hit forty, our brains integrate more and compartmentalize less, a design that addresses the challenges of longevity.

You may also wish to read: Can implanted computer chips cure depression? Brain–computer interface (BCI) is promising for paralysis and prosthetics but raises concerns in the treatment of depression. Looking beneath the futurist hype: One vulnerable patient came to feel that the device company owned her self. Then it went bankrupt…

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Study: Depressed Patients’ Brains Can Rewire, Lifting the Gloom