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Untreated Depression Can Cause Permanent Changes in the Brain

PSA: Untreated depression can cause permanent changes in the brain.

Results of a recent study confirmed what has long been suspected: “neurodegeneration underpins disease progression when major depressive disorder is left untreated,” In layman’s terms, neurobiologists have been able to demonstrate that when depression goes untreated, sections of our the brain can begin to degenerate, or deteriorate.

This research indicates that untreated depression can cause the brain to shrink (notably, one area affected is the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and complex decision making). Thankfully, there is growing evidence that brains are able to create new neurons throughout our lifetimes, a process called synaptogenisis, which is linked to neuroplasticity. However, if depression is left untreated long term, degeneration may outpace our ability to generate new neurons – a capacity that reduces as we age.

Full Recovery is Possible

The good news is that Ahidan (2011) found that brains that have been treated for and/or recovered from major depression are not significantly different in volume from non-depression-experiencing brains at an 11-year follow-up (Ahidan, 2011).

Delaying Care

Because of the lingering stigma around mental health care or barriers to care (like financial expense), it can be tempting to delay treatment after noticing depression symptoms. Often, people hope their symptoms “might just get better,” and indeed, this is sometimes the case. What this study demonstrates, though, is that seeking treatment proactively may give us the best shot at a full recovery. Interrupting symptoms with researched based treatment (therapy, medication, or a combination of the two) can halt these brain changes.

For a less-technical summary of the findings of the study linked above, click here.

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Image description for screen readers:
Pink colored background with text in the center. Written at the top of the group of text is, “P.S.A.” Underneath, in a green-colored oval is written “untreated” with the word “depression” written in a blue box. Following this is more text that reads, “can cause permanent changes (the two words are underlined in blue) in the brain”

Research by Perry (2018).

Visually translated by Lindsay Braman.

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