Depression is a condition which affects nearly one in 20 Americans over the age of 12. Yet methods of diagnosing and treating the condition have made little forward progress over the past few decades. A new study, which represents a collaborative effort between Beth Israel Medical Center, the Albert Einstein Medical Center and Columbia University, may have taken the first steps toward developing a way to image the condition for future diagnosis.
Researchers examined 28 female subjects aged 18-30. Half of the women were diagnosed with unipolar depression based on the Beck Depression Inventory II and the other half were not depressed. The women were asked to lie in an MRI imaging scanner and view a series of photographs. As they viewed the pictures, the women were asked to think about how close or distant they felt to the person and how much they liked them. The women were shown images of friends, strangers, an older woman not their mother, and images of their mom.
While the women viewed the pictures, researchers were paying close attention to the left anterior region of their brains, particularly aPCG, the region responsible for social emotions and which is activated whenever a person is in conflict. The images of friends and strangers acted as control mechanisms to ensure that responses were linked to feelings about the mothers’ image. When the researchers compared the depressed brain scans with those of non-depressed women, the MRI scans proved to be 90 percent accurate in predicting depression. As the women viewed pictures of friends and strangers, all the brain scans proved to be identical. However, when images of mothers were viewed, the aPCG brain regions were stimulated to sadness in the brains of those suffering with depression.
Why It Is Important
To date, there has not been a reliable tool for imaging depression in the way that you would a broken bone or another physical defect. In fact, since the introduction of the drug Prozac in the 1980s, very little progress has been made in the diagnosis or treatment of the condition that affects so many of us. The results from this study go a long way towards providing such a tool into the hands of mental health professionals.
The results which seem to demonstrate a clear link between feelings about one’s mother and the presence of depression have also been lauded as validation for theories put forward by Sigmund Freud. While many of Freud’s psychological postulations have proven false over time, his emphasis upon a person’s relationship with their mother as the basis for their future mental health may be proving more insightful.
The results of this study appear in the December volume of Plos One journal.