Media Releases

Study shows brain’s response to sadness can predict relapses into depression

May 26, 2011

TORONTO, ON – A Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to study shows that when for­mer­ly depressed peo­ple expe­ri­ence mild states of sad­ness, their brain’s response can pre­dict if they will become depressed again.

“Part of what makes depres­sion such a dev­as­tat­ing dis­ease is the high rate of relapse,” says Nor­man Farb, a PhD psy­chol­o­gy stu­dent and lead author of the study. “How­ev­er, the fact that some patients are able to ful­ly main­tain their recov­ery sug­gests the pos­si­bil­i­ty that dif­fer­ent respons­es to the type of emo­tion­al chal­lenges encoun­tered in every­day life could reduce the chance of relapse.”

Farb and his team showed 16 for­mer­ly depressed patients sad movie clips and tracked their brain activ­i­ty using func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI). Six­teen months lat­er, nine of the 16 patients had relapsed into depres­sion. The researchers com­pared the brain activ­i­ty of relaps­ing patients against those who remained healthy and against anoth­er group of peo­ple who had nev­er been depressed.

Faced with sad­ness, the relaps­ing patients showed more activ­i­ty in a frontal region of the brain, known as the medi­al pre­frontal gyrus. These respons­es were also linked to high­er rumi­na­tion: the ten­den­cy to think obses­sive­ly about neg­a­tive events and occur­rences. The patients who did not relapse showed more activ­i­ty in the rear part of the brain, which is respon­si­ble for pro­cess­ing visu­al infor­ma­tion and is linked to greater feel­ings of accep­tance and non-judge­ment of expe­ri­ence.

“Despite achiev­ing an appar­ent recov­ery from the symp­toms of depres­sion, this study sug­gests that there are impor­tant dif­fer­ences in how for­mer­ly depressed peo­ple respond to emo­tion­al chal­lenges that pre­dict future well-being,” says Farb. “For a per­son with a his­to­ry of depres­sion, using the frontal brain’s abil­i­ty to ana­lyze and inter­pret sad­ness may actu­al­ly be an unhealthy reac­tion that can per­pet­u­ate the chron­ic cycle of depres­sion. These at-risk indi­vid­u­als might be bet­ter served by try­ing to accept and notice their feel­ings rather than explain and ana­lyze them.”

The research was pub­lished in Bio­log­i­cal Psy­chi­a­try. Farb was under the super­vi­sion of pro­fes­sor Adam Ander­son in the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy.

More infor­ma­tion, read the arti­cle: Mood-Linked Respons­es in Medi­al Pre­frontal Cor­tex Pre­dict Relapse in Patients with Recur­rent Unipo­lar Depres­sion.



For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Nor­man Farb, PhD
Post­doc­tor­al Fel­low
Rot­man Research Insti­tute

Jes­si­ca Lewis
Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to