I may not be Ira Flatow, but I'm stilling doing it. Well, doing it my way. So, welcome to another weekly installment But Not Unhappy Science Fridays. (I'm hoping all the weekly features will help me be less erratic in my posting and raise the quality of said posts.) There is so much research being done about depression and mood disorders and that research can actually tell us a lot about ourselves. The more we know the better we will be at managing our symptoms and getting back to our lives.
Today's science: Area 25--not to be confused with Area 51. Area 25 is an old discovery but I had never heard of it until a few months ago and knowing about it made a difference in how I think (and feel) about my depression.
Despite its name Area 25 is actually not anywhere near Roswell, New Mexico. It is in your brain.
I first heard of it when I watched the excellent PBS special Out of the Shadows. What they said in the program was that for years researchers knew that depression had something to do with the brain but no matter how many scans they did they couldn't find any similarities in depressed people's brains. Sure, they knew that messing with neurotransmitters through SSRIs and other anti-depressants helped alleviate symptoms, but they also knew that those neurotransmitters weren't the cause of depression. They were simply another symptom. There was something in the brain that was messing the neurotransmitters up and scientists couldn't find it. There was no one area that uniformly correlated with depression. Every depressed person's brain looked unique. That left researches stumped. How could they fix/heal depression if they couldn't even find out where it was?
Enter Helen Mayberg. In the mid 1980's she realized that depressed people's brain all showed lower activity in the frontal lobe where emotions are processed. Mayberg said it was proof that depression was more than just a chemical imbalance. Depression was a wiring problem. As Mayberg began studying the depressed brain more she (and her colleagues, I shouldn't be leaving them out)realized that an area buried in the frontal lobe, Area 25, showed higher activity while the rest of the lobe showed lower activity. There was a connection! Mayberg hypothesized that the extra activity in Area 25 was suppressing the normal activities in the frontal lobes and causing depression. From there, Mayberg has studied and designed deep brain stimulation treatment for treatment-resistant depression (depression that doesn't respond to anti-depressants, therapy, or electroshock--yes they are still doing that). For a compelling account of how the deep brain stimulation works read this article from 60 Minutes.
So what does all this have to do with us regular depressed people? Well, to me, this means that depression/mood disorders are not something we can make up. It isn't psychosomatic. It's a real, physiological condition. So next time you say to yourself that all of this is just in your head, you can reply (because I know you all talk to yourselves just like I do!) that yes, it is in your head but in a very concrete medical way. And, just like other people with physical illnesses you don't need to feel bad for getting help and seeking treatment.