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In Part 2 of our neuroscience expert series with social media science communicator Ben Rein, I sat down with him to discuss major depressive disorder and how it affects the brain’s chemistry and function in surprising ways.
Rein, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, amassed a large following after one of his videos went viral in 2020. Since then, he has dedicated his platform to educating people on topics in neuroscience, creating engaging short-form videos for over 600,000 followers on his TikTok. (Scroll down to watch our full conversation about the brain and depression.)
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Major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression, is characterized by ongoing depressed mood or a loss of interest in activities that ultimately impairs daily life. When we’re suffering from depression, Rein explains, certain parts of our brain can actually shrink and lose gray matter volume. (Gray matter being the outermost layer of the brain, where there is a high concentration of neuronal cell bodies). These areas include the hippocampus, which controls your memory and learning, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls higher-level thinking.
While there have been plenty of studies on clinical depression, neuroscientists like Rein are not entirely sure what’s going on in the brain when people suffer from the condition. Currently, there are two common treatments for depression: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and antidepressant prescriptions, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs in particular have been effective in treating depression because they temporarily increase the level of serotonin neurotransmitters in your brain.
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The cause of depression has been widely debated over the last couple of decades, though some researchers have theorized that a lack of serotonin in the brain can cause depression. However, a review published last month in the journal Molecular Psychiatry refutes that hypothesis. “Our comprehensive review of the major strands of research on serotonin shows there is no convincing evidence that depression is associated with, or caused by, lower serotonin concentrations or activity,” the authors note.
However, that doesn’t mean you should skip out on SSRIs if you’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression. “It doesn’t need to be the problem to be the solution in the brain,” Rein tells me.
So, are there actually ways for us to prevent depression or other mental health disorders? According to Rein, there are a few common-sense things you can do:
Get enough sleep each night
Eat a healthy diet
Exercise regularly (yoga, in particular, has been linked to positive outcomes)
Try mindfulness practices like meditation
Avoid social isolation
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