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Anxiety and Depression Are Linked To Chemical Brain Imbalances

Anxiety and Depression Are Linked To Chemical Brain Imbalances

Revisiting old ideas and assumptions, without clinical data, seems to be as good a start as any for puzzled scientists when it comes to the subject of depression, anxiety, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Categorizing these medical conditions into addictions or disorders has also not helped in discovery and treatment. This is not to say that behavioral counseling and certain selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors known as SSRI, better known as anti-depressant drugs, do not help a percentage of the population. However, these methods are purely based on trial and error.

Over the past 15 years, there have been advances made by researchers in making more than just an effort in understanding the complexity of the brain and pinpointing areas of chemical balances.

Melanocortin

In the 1950s, it was discovered that the Nucleus Accumbens (NAc) was associated with the ability to feel pleasure. Robert C. Malenka, M.D., Ph.D., Pritzker Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, decided to take a closer look at this pleasure circuit since it seemed to be lacking in many diagnosed with depression. What he and his colleagues discovered was that it was not as much the specific region of the brain as much as the circuit activity that crossed through many complex regions.

Dr. Malenka has become a leading expert on the tiny gaps, called synapses, that occur during the transmission of nerve cell activity signals. The challenge is great, since there are trillions of synapses in the human brain. Recently, melanocortin circuit’s contribution to anhedonia-like behavior was found, and Dr. Malenka has high hopes in identifying a potentially new pathway of intervention in depression.[1] Melanocortin is a hormone that affects appetite in humans and further, turns off the brain’s ability to experience pleasure when an animal is stressed.

Monoamine Oxidase

Monoamine oxidase loss is the basis of another study investigated by Dr. Jeffrey Meyer,[2] Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Neurochemistry of Major Depression at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario. Monoamine oxidase (MAO-A) is an enzyme that breaks down chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Dr. Meyer discovered that there was a huge increase in MAO-A in patients with major depression diagnosis.[3] Knowing that this was a significant breakthrough in tracking monoamine transporters, his team created a model to follow, like a road map. This will take the guess work out of watching how chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, increase or decrease at different rates based upon transporter density. Researchers are now moving on to the next step in why MAO-A levels are raised in the brain and how to prevent it.

Acetylcholinesterase

Dr. Marina Picciotto, Ph.D., Professor of Neurobiology and Pharmacology at Yale University, and a team of researchers, have proven a biological cause for depression and anxiety, one which was previously dismissed in theory. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that was overshadowed by a signal-carrying chemical, called serotonin, as a leading cause of depression. While serotonin is important in the scheme of transmission, it is not nearly as powerful as acetylcholine.

An enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (AChE) has been found to lower acetylcholine levels.[4] The team discovered while studying mice that were treated with Prozac, that the AChE levels raised considerably, and even higher levels of acetylcholine were noted. This once questionable area of treatment became understandable, and showed why SSRI anti-depressants were valuable in alleviating depression.

The relationship between serotonin and acetylcholine signaling systems has not yet become clear, but by finding the cause of depression, treatments can now be studied from a different point of view.

Genes and Chemicals

It has already been discovered that certain genes make individuals more susceptible to low moods and how their treatment with anti-depressant drugs may differ from the next person. However, by majoring this hurdle, scientists can now focus on how specific regions of the brain changes in individuals.

For example, the hippocampus is smaller in some depressed people. Scientists’ hypothesis lies in the fact that new nerve cells have to be grown in order to combat the deteriorating cells that cause depression.[5] In animals, it was found that the use of anti-depressants spurred the growth and enhanced branching of nerve cells in the hippo-campus.

New neurons, a process called neurogenesis, that are stimulated by drugs specifically designed for strengthening nerve cell connections and improving the exchange of information between nerve circuits, could be the answer in treating depression. Scientists have pinpointed several types of neurotransmitters; these include Acetylcholine, Serotonin, Norepinephrine, Dopamine, Glutamate, and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). By studying each one of these transmitters and creating new chemicals that enhance their existence, depression, anxiety, and SAD could easily be treated.

Conclusion

It seems that researchers are onto something; something that can aid in treatment soon, others years down the road. While every one of these discoveries, including herbal remedies,[6] seem deserving of further testing, let us not forget that the brain is a very complex machine, and that it may take a collaboration of findings in order to reach an answer for different individuals.

Featured photo credit: Gratisography via pexels.com

Reference

[1]Brain and Behavior Research Foundation: Moving Beyond ‘Chemical Imbalance’ Theory of Depression
[2]Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: Dr. Jeffrey Meyer
[3]Psych Central: Depression’s Chemical Imbalance Explained
[4]Brain and Behavior Research Foundation: Potential Root Cause of Depression Discovered by NARSAD Grantee
[5]Harvard Health Publications: What Causes Depression?
[6]TN Nursery: Herb Plants

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Tammy Sons

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Last Updated on September 10, 2018

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

We thought that the expression ‘broken heart’ was just a metaphor, but science is telling us that it is not: breakups and rejections do cause physical pain. When a group of psychologists asked research participants to look at images of their ex-partners who broke up with them, researchers found that the same brain areas that are activated by physical pain are also activated by looking at images of ex-partners. Looking at images of our ex is a painful experience, literally.[1].

Given that the effect of rejections and breakups is the same as the effect of physical pain, scientists have speculated on whether the practices that reduce physical pain could be used to reduce the emotional pain that follows from breakups and rejections. In a study on whether painkillers reduce the emotional pain caused by a breakup, researchers found that painkillers did help. Individuals who took painkillers were better able to deal with their breakup. Tamar Cohen wrote that “A simple dose of paracetamol could help ease the pain of a broken heart.”[2]

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Just like painkillers can be used to ease the pain of a broken heart, other practices that ease physical pain can also be used to ease the pain of rejections and breakups. Three of these scientifically validated practices are presented in this article.

Looking at images of loved ones

While images of ex-partners stimulate the pain neuro-circuitry in our brain, images of loved ones activate a different circuitry. Looking at images of people who care about us increases the release of oxytocin in our body. Oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone,” is the hormone that our body relies on to induce in us a soothing feeling of tranquility, even when we are under high stress and pain.

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In fact, oxytocin was found to have a crucial role as a mother is giving birth to her baby. Despite the extreme pain that a mother has to endure during delivery, the high level of oxytocin secreted by her body transforms pain into pleasure. Mariem Melainine notes that, “Oxytocin levels are usually at their peak during delivery, which promotes a sense of euphoria in the mother and helps her develop a stronger bond with her baby.”[3]

Whenever you feel tempted to look at images of your ex-partner, log into your Facebook page and start browsing images of your loved ones. As Eva Ritvo, M.D. notes, “Facebook fools our brain into believing that loved ones surround us, which historically was essential to our survival. The human brain, because it evolved thousands of years before photography, fails on many levels to recognize the difference between pictures and people”[4]

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Exercise

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce our perception of pain. When our body is high on endorphins, painful sensations are kept outside of conscious awareness. It was found that exercise causes endorphins to be secreted in the brain and as a result produce a feeling of power, as psychologist Alex Korb noted in his book: “Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act on your neurons like opiates (such as morphine or Vicodin) by sending a neural signal to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief.”[5] By inhibiting pain from being transmitted to our brain, exercise acts as a powerful antidote to the pain caused by rejections and breakups.

Meditation

Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who pioneered the use of mindfulness meditation therapy for patients with chronic pain, has argued that it is not pain itself that is harmful to our mental health, rather, it is the way we react to pain. When we react to pain with irritation, frustration, and self-pity, more pain is generated, and we enter a never ending spiral of painful thoughts and sensations.

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In order to disrupt the domino effect caused by reacting to pain with pain, Kabat Zinn and other proponents of mindfulness meditation therapy have suggested reacting to pain through nonjudgmental contemplation and acceptance. By practicing meditation on a daily basis and getting used to the habit of paying attention to the sensations generated by our body (including the painful ones and by observing these sensations nonjudgmentally and with compassion) our brain develops the habit of reacting to pain with grace and patience.

When you find yourself thinking about a recent breakup or a recent rejection, close your eyes and pay attention to the sensations produced by your body. Take deep breaths and as you are feeling the sensations produced by your body, distance yourself from them, and observe them without judgment and with compassion. If your brain starts wandering and gets distracted, gently bring back your compassionate nonjudgmental attention to your body. Try to do this exercise for one minute and gradually increase its duration.

With consistent practice, nonjudgmental acceptance will become our default reaction to breakups, rejections, and other disappointments that we experience in life. Every rejection and every breakup teaches us great lessons about relationships and about ourselves.

Featured photo credit: condesign via pixabay.com

Reference

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