Depression and Neuro Science

Prof B L Chakoo
I have been studying neuroscience for decades now, and have even watched some gruesome brain surgeries.   What    I have learned from this all is that         knowing about the details of how the brain works can certainly empower us     to improve efficiently our brain                  performance.
In fact,   today’s latest research in brain science (commonly known as neuroscience or neuroplasticity) promises you that working on your brain, you can achieve your greatest desire, whether that be enhanced memory, superior intelligence, concentration, confidence, interest in all– or almost all-activities, and overall brain health or simply ‘a more relaxed and transcendent state of mind’–which will override the rigid, anxious autopilot mode that depression or stress creates.
People with worrying and anxiety tendencies (which are two big symptoms of – and causes of depression) need not to feel sad, alone, or hopeless. They need to know that worrying is primarily the result of poor communication between the thinking prefrontal cortex (which is the whole surface of your brain) and the anterior cingulated which notices all your mistakes and contributes to ‘the tendency to dwell on everything that is going wrong’.  Anxiety, by comparison, is mediated by some circuits within the limbic system which is the emotional part of the brain and is responsible for things like fear, anxiety and memory.  So, there is no reason to get upset with you for feeling anxious or worrying too much.  It is just a by-product of your brain’s evolution.
Yes, it would be marvellous if we never felt worried or anxious, but that is not the way our brains are ‘structured or wired’. We as human beings worry about the future, ‘regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present’. We get upset, feel angry, frustrated when we cannot have what we want, and sad, irritable or disappointed when what we desire ‘ends’.   Very often you are regretting something you did yesterday or seriously worrying about something that might happen tomorrow. This kind of attitude is ‘constructed’ by the brain itself.  It is all made up. But if the brain is the cause of suffering, it can also be its “cure.”  It is said that on the night of Buddha’s awakening he “looked deep inside his mind [which reflected and revealed the underlying activities of his brain] and saw there both the causes of suffering and the path to freedom from suffering’.   In other words, when you understand why you suffer or why you feel nervous, annoyed, hassled, inadequate, or even prone to excessive ruminations, your brain will develop the ability to right itself from its tendency to “spiral downward” into the burden of depressive thinking and pathological negative moods.
Every human being has depressive tendencies to a varying degree. There is, however, no brain scan that can diagnose depression.   You can simply know symptoms of this disease, such as restlessness, loss of energy, always noticing the negative, insomnia or abnormal desire to sleep, and feelings of sadness or worthlessness and recurrent thoughts of suicide or death. You can even know about many of the brain circuits and neurotransmitters involved in this brain disorder, which wreaks havoc on your sleep patterns, appetite mechanisms, immune system, social health, and even on your heart.
However, the good news is that decades of neuroscience inquiries have shown us how to modify (without consuming psychotropic drugs) the neural circuits involved in depression, and change the levels of various neurochemicals, and even grow new neurons to improve mental function and overall performance in life. We all know how important exercise is for our body, but what we do not realize is how important exercise is for your brain. Your brain is interconnected with your body, so what activities you do with your body affect your neurochemistry.  Exercise, indeed, has the same effects on the brain chemistry as antidepressant medications. Several studies have demonstrated that its benefits can ‘exceed even those of medication’.
Exercise increases nerve growth factors, such as brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which are like steroids for the brain. Most people suffering from depression due to a deficiency of serotonin  depend wholly on psychiatric medications and consume antidepressants which target the serotonin system in your brain to elevate serotonin levels, that increase your motivation and willpower-and  minimize the activity of depression. Well, today neuroscientists provide you evidence that exercise can also ‘boost serotonin activity’.  Any movement, such as walking, jogging in pleasant environments, gardening or even walking up and down the stairs, increases ‘the firing rate of serotonin neurons’, which causes them to release more serotonin to treat your depression or create new good habits. Similarly, exercise with moderate intensity increases your norepinephrine– which controls in depressive people the difficulties with concentration and deep thinking.
Exercise will help you in calming your stress which often pushes you towards depression.  When you exercise your brain releases endorphins that act on your neurons like opiates (such as Vicodin or morphine) by sending ‘neural signal to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief’.  Exercise also speeds up activation of the endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids (marijuana) are a naturally occurring chemical in the brain which reduces pain and increases positive feelings.  In short, exercises can provide you a haless and effective way to keep your brain’s dynamic interactions going.
People with depression must remember the following things: 1) Interactions with others can also pack ‘a powerful punch’ in helping you to transcend depression as well as stress;  2) basking in the sunlight improves serotonin production and keeps the serotonin transporter from sucking it away (which is one thing that your antidepressants do); focus on the positive events that have happened in your life ( this simple activity increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex, which will keep you from thinking about negative experiences); improve your sleep hygiene which helps in activating your brain circuits to release melatonin that prepares you for quality sleep . In fact quality sleep enhances your learning for ‘rewarding activities’, which implies that you will have an easier time to attend to positive thinking.