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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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Last Updated on January 13, 2020

7 Simple Brain Training Habits to Boost Your Brain Power

7 Simple Brain Training Habits to Boost Your Brain Power

Throughout the ages, there have been many beliefs in various tricks to boosting brain power, yet when held up to scientific scrutiny, most of these beliefs don’t add up.

When I was a child, for example, my mother told me if I ate fish it would make me more intelligent. Of course, there’s no scientific proof this is true.

Today, there is a myriad of games you can download to your phone that claims to improve your brain’s cognitive skills. While we are still waiting for a conclusive scientific verdict on these, recent studies by neuroscientists at Western University in Ontario[1] and researchers from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia appear to contradict these claims.[2]

So, how can we really boost our brain power? Well, it turns out there are a number of simple things you can do that will improve the function of your brain. Here are seven to get you started.

1. Do Your Most Difficult Tasks in the Morning

Our brains work at their best when they are fresh and energized after a good night’s sleep.

If you have a task to do that requires a lot of thought and focus, the best time to do that task would be first thing in the morning when your brain is at its freshest.

This is one of the reasons why checking email first thing the morning is not a good idea. You are wasting your brain’s best hours on a simple task that can be done when your brain is not at its freshest

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Throughout the day, you will find the amount of time you can focus for will fall. Your decision-making abilities will also begin to weaken as the day progresses. This is called “decision fatigue” and that means the decisions you make later in the day will not be as good as the decisions you make earlier in the day.

It’s far better to do your most difficult, creative tasks early taking advantage of your brain’s higher energy levels.

Try to avoid meetings first thing in the morning and schedule work that needs higher creative energy and concentration.

2. Get Enough Breaks

Our brains are not very good at maintaining concentration and focus for much more than an hour. Once you go beyond a certain amount of time, doing focused work, you will find yourself making more and more mistakes. This is a sign your brain is tired and needs a break.

Taking the right kind of break is important. Switching from working on a complex spreadsheet to checking your social media feeds is not going to give your brain the right kind of break. Instead, get up from your desk and head outside. If that is not possible, go to the nearest window and look outside.

Your brain needs a break from the screen, not just the spreadsheet, so leave your phone behind so you are not tempted to look at it and just savour the view.

3. Read Books, not Social Media Feeds

There are no shortcuts to improved knowledge and you are certainly not going to improve your general knowledge about anything useful by reading social media feeds. Instead, make reading books a regular habit.

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When you read good quality books, you increase your ability to use the knowledge you learn to solve problems as your brain will apply the knowledge you learned to existing situations.

Learn about economic theory, history and psychology. All these topics have real practical applications for us all today.

4. Exercise Regularly

Humans did not evolve to be stationary animals. You need to move.

Had our ancestors spent their days sat around, they would not have survived very long. To survive and find food, our ancestors had to keep moving. Our brains have evolved to function at their best when we are exercised.

In his book, Brain Rules, Prof.John Medina explains when we exercise, we increase the amount of oxygen in our brains and this helps to sharpen our brain’s functions.

In studies, when a previously sedentary group of people began a light exercise programme, their cognitive skills improve as well as reaction times and quantitive skills.

This is why you are more likely to find the solution to a problem when you are walking somewhere or exercising rather than when you are sat at a desk in front of a screen.

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5. Get Enough of the Right Food

You probably have experienced the afternoon slump at some point in your life. This is when you feel tired and fatigued in the mid-afternoon. This is a result of the carbohydrates you ate at lunchtime, stimulating your body to produce insulin which then causes a drop in your blood sugar levels.

When you go into an afternoon slump, concentrating for long periods become almost impossible and you just want to curl up and go to sleep.

To prevent the afternoon slump, try to eat a protein-rich lunch such as a tuna or chicken salad without pasta, rice or bread. Keep some healthy snacks such as mixed nuts and dried bananas around your workspace and when you feel a little peckish, eat a few of these.

Not only will you avoid the afternoon slump, but you will also improve your overall general health and feel a lot more energetic.

6. Drink Enough Water

Your brain is made up of about 70% water, so without enough water, your brain will not function at its best.

When you are not drinking enough water, you will find your ability to concentrate, make decisions and stay alert will reduce. You will feel sleepy and lack energy. Your brain functions at its best when it is properly hydrated.

The solution is to keep a large bottle of water at your work station and sip regularly from it throughout the day. This will increase the number of trips you need to make to the bathroom which is a good thing. It will keep you moving and taking regular breaks from your screen.

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7. Don’t Deprive Yourself of Sleep

You probably don’t need a long scientific study to convince you that if you are not getting enough sleep, you are not going to function at your best.

You just need to go a couple of days without getting enough sleep and you feel your abilities reduce. Your decision-making skills become erratic, your energy levels drop and your ability to stay focused on your work diminishes.

If you want to improve your brain’s ability to function, then start with getting enough sleep. The number of hours you need will depend on your own circadian rhythms, so find what works best for you.

Six to eight hours is usually enough for most people so make sure you are hitting that number of hours per night as a minimum.

The Bottom Line

Improving our brain power is not difficult. All we need to do is develop a few simple habits such as exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and eating the right foods.

These seven tips will go a long way to helping you to become more alert, able to focus longer and make decisions. All simple common sense tricks anyone can use.

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Featured photo credit: Nicole Wolf via unsplash.com

Reference

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