How Does Depression Affect The Brain?

Louis Laves-Webb

June 28, 2022

More than 21 million people in the United States, or approximately 8.5% of the population, live with some sort of depression. Depression is known primarily for affecting people’s moods, but it can also be responsible for changes in people’s motivation levels, attitudes, thoughts, and actions. As brain and neuroscience research continues to make advances, it appears that depression can also more directly affect the brain. If left unaddressed, repeated bouts of depression appear to potentially result in both physical and functional changes to the brain. In this post from Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S, we’ll discuss how depression affects the brain.

What Is Clinical Depression?

Most people think of depression simply as a mood-affecting disorder, but clinical depression is an actual psychological condition that affects far more than just how people feel. Clinical depression can impact an individual’s function entirely. Those that are experiencing clinical depression tend to lose interest in activities they once cherished and enjoyed. Additionally, long stretches of feeling hopeless can result in those with depression having a hard time working, studying, or even interacting with others. Many with clinical depression say that they no longer feel like themselves. Some of the most common symptoms of clinical depression include:

  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • Outbursts of anger, irritability, and frustration over trivial matters
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in most or all activities, like hobbies, sex, sports, and spending time with loved ones
  • Feeling low energy or tired
  • Sleeping disturbances like oversleeping or insomnia
  • Increased or reduced appetite
  • Difficulty making decisions or concentrating

These are just a few of the tell-tale signs of clinical depression. In most cases, these symptoms are severe enough to affect an individual's daily function. If symptoms last for more than 2 weeks, the individual is likely experiencing some form of clinical depression.

Depression & The Brain

While clinical depression largely affects the mood of an individual, it can also impact functioning as a whole.  Those that simply feel intermittently sad may cry, feel upset, and avoid their friends and family temporarily. Sleeping in and staying up late can also be associated with episodic mood shifts, however, for the most part, standard feelings of sadness do not result in an ongoing or paralyzing ability to function systemically.  

Those that are clinically depressed on the other hand do not necessarily overcome their feelings of sadness and hopelessness as readily. Individuals with clinical depression can experience symptoms for weeks, months, or years when left untreated, all while struggling to perform day-to-day functions and responsibilities.  This may be in part because clinical depression may physically alter the brain, causing it to shrink, become inflamed, or even reduce oxygen levels present in the brain. There’s growing evidence that several parts of the brain may indeed shrink in some people with depression. Specifically, individuals with chronic depression have been shown to lose gray matter volume.  The loss appears to be higher in people who have regular or ongoing depression with serious symptoms.

These changes can result in intense feelings of hopelessness and depression that can contribute to a feedback loop making the depressive symptomatology more challenging to abate. Scientists are still trying to answer if these types of changes are permanent although the brain is incredibly regenerative.  Even with the resiliency of the brain, ongoing and untreated depression just may cause long-term changes to the brain, especially in the hippocampus. That might be why depression is so hard to treat in some people. However, researchers have also found less gray matter in people who were diagnosed with the lifelong major depressive disorder but had not suffered from depression in years.

As more research develops, there is always hope that current or new treatments might help reverse or save off some of these brain changes.

Need Help Overcoming Depression? Louis Laves-Webb Is Here For You

If you think you may be experiencing clinical depression, Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S and our team of experienced therapists are here to help. We’ve helped countless individuals in the Austin, TX area overcome clinical depression. To get started on the path to a healthier and happier life, please give us a call or contact us online today.

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