In an era of Instagram highlight reels and ‘Top 30 under 30’ articles exploding over social media, it can often feel like everyone around you is living a happy, fulfilled life. Statistics however, reveal a different story: a staggering 1 in 5 people in North America are suffering with a mental health condition. (1,2) In fact, depression has been labelled as the leading cause of disability worldwide by the World Health Organization. (3)
Some of the most common treatments used to combat depression are antidepressant medications, but for many sufferers, antidepressants are only marginally effective (or not effective at all). Interestingly, some research has shown that meditation can be effective in alleviating some symptoms of depression. (4)
In order to understand how chronic depression affects the brain, it is important to briefly learn about the four areas of the brain that can be affected:
- The Anterior Cingulate Cortex: involved in decision making, emotional regulation, as well as regulation of physiological processes, such as blood pressure and heart rate. It’s also interesting to note that some researchers argue that a part of the anterior cingulate cortex – the supracallosal region – might represent the experience of sadness based on previous imaging studies.
- Lateral Prefrontal Cortex: responsible for regulating emotional responses and helping a person be more logical and rational.
- Medial Prefrontal Cortex: self-referencing centre of the brain, that processes personal perspective and experiences, and tends to respond strongly to any personal attacks.
- Insula: This monitors bodily sensations and guides how strongly a person will respond to them; it is also involved in feeling empathy.
- Amygdala i.e. “the fear centre”. This is where the “fight or flight” response lives, and is responsible for initial emotional reactions such as anger and fear.
The Depressed Brain
So, what actually happens on a physical level to a chronically depressed brain?
A recent study published in February of this year from CAMH showed that people with longer periods of untreated depression, lasting more than a decade, had significantly more brain inflammation compared to those who had less than 10 years of untreated depression. The study involved 25 people with more than 10 years of depression, 25 with less than 10 years of illness, and 30 people with no depression as a comparison group. All were evaluated with positron emission tomography scans (PET scans) to locate a specific type of protein that results from the brain’s inflammatory response to injury or illness. (5)
According to senior author Dr. Jeff Meyer, who also holds a Canada Research Chair in the Neurochemistry of Major Depression, this study provides “the first biological evidence for large brain changes in long-lasting depression, suggesting that it is a different stage of illness that needs different therapeutics – the same perspective taken for early and later stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”
In an excerpt from the original article from CAMH, he continues to say that “greater inflammation in the brain is a common response with degenerative brain diseases as they progress, such as with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.” While depression is not considered a degenerative brain disease, the change in inflammation shows that, for those in whom depression persists, it may be progressive and not a static condition.
White Matter & Structural Change:
In a 2017 study of more than 3000 people – the largest of its type to date – alterations were found in parts of the brain known as white matter. White matter, which lies beneath the gray matter cortex, is composed of millions of bundles of axons (nerve fibres) that connect neurons in different brain regions into functional circuits.
White matter pathways play an important role in the human brain by connecting spatially separated areas of the CNS and enabling rapid and efficient information exchange between them. Disruption of white matter has been linked to problems with simple motor performance, cognitive abilities, complex linguistic faculties, and emotion processing. (6)
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh used a cutting-edge technique known as diffusion tensor imaging to map the structure of white matter. A quality of the matter (known as white matter integrity) was reduced in people who reported symptoms indicative of depression.
Furthermore, research suggests that the amygdala (the “fear centre”) becomes even more active in depressive illness and repeated stress can enlarge the amygdala further. This can also lead to the abnormal secretion of other hormones and chemicals, which can, in turn, affect many systems in the body including sleep patterns and physical activity. (7)
Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex – including both the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex – are more likely to shrink with depression. This means depressed people may have a harder time approaching a situation from a logical perspective, and may have a more emotional response.
Meditation for Depression: Your Brain on Meditation
It’s important to note that currently, we don’t have definitive research to show the direct reversal of the above issues with meditation alone. That being said, we do know that meditation has the potential to create several positive structural and physiological changes that could help combat depression.
Knowing that patients that suffer chronic depression have heightened inflammation in their brains, researchers have looked at the biomarkers for the immune system in individuals that practise meditation. They found that increased meditation practice is correlated with reduced stress-related biomarkers for the participants who were engaged in longer-than-median meditation practise times.
As described in our previous post – 6 ways meditation can change the brain – regular meditators have significantly larger volumes of gray matter in the regions of the brain most associated with positive emotions. So, not only can meditation increase your grey matter volume, but it can also improve your ability to remain positive in the process.
Research has seen improvements in white matter and connectivity as well. A 2010 study found improvements in white matter after four weeks of meditation training specifically in the anterior cingulate cortex – which is known to be involved in controlling cognition, and emotion – potentially specific to sadness. (10)
A large meta-analysis of 123 studies showed consistent positive differences in prefrontal cortex and body awareness regions. After reviewing all results, consistent and medium-sized brain structure differences were suggested. In another study done in individuals suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, they found that an eight-week mindfulness-based intervention increased grey matter density in several areas of the brain compared to a control group receiving usual care.
Mood & Attitude:
On top of increasing grey matter and a positive mental attitude, Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford and leader of the team that developed MBCT stated in a Psychology today article that “one of the key features of depression is that it hijacks your attention,” says Professor Williams. “We all tend to bring to the forefront of our minds the thoughts and feelings that reflect our current mood. If you are sad, depressed or anxious, then you tend to remember the bad things that have happened to you and not the good. This drives you into a downward spiral that leads from sadness into a deeper depression.”
Similar to patients suffering from anxiety, individuals suffering from depression can get stuck in the habit of something known as “experiential avoidance” or the want to avoid negative feelings/emotions/situations. Patients with depression often have a tendency to think negatively about past experiences, one’s self, or the future. A consistent meditation practice may be able to help shift away from the “downward spiral” by bringing more attention to the present moment.
With practice, the ability to become more present and less emotionally reactive can help reduce common symptoms such as constant rumination, distorted thoughts, difficulty concentrating, and negative self-talk.
Meditation: A Safe & Natural Treatment For Depression?
In a study conducted by University of Exeter in the UK, the research team recruited 424 adult patients with a history of three or more major depressive episodes who were also on a therapeutic dose of maintenance antidepressants. Half of the patients were kept on antidepressants, and the remainder received meditation training instead. The team found that meditation was just as effective as antidepressant medication in preventing a relapse or recurrence. (4)
It’s not just a case of one isolated study either – a systematic review of 47 trials published in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that meditation can help manage anxiety, depression, and pain within training periods of just 8 weeks or less. (8)
In comparing the efficacy of antidepressants against meditation, Professor Willem Kuyken, from the Mood Disorders Centre of the University of Exeter in the UK states: “While they’re [antidepressants] very effective in helping reduce the symptoms of depression when people come off them, they are particularly vulnerable to relapse.”
Fortunately, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) – a specific form of meditation – helps prevent this relapse by training the mind not to fall into a deeper depression. (9) Meditation also has the added benefits of zero side-effects.
How To Get Started with Meditation
As the research has shown, meditation isn’t just spiritual fluff – it’s firmly rooted in science and as you’ve read above, has the power to change the physical structure of the brain, even for those suffering from depression.
A great place to start if you’ve never meditated before is with the free Muse App to help get you started with a guided meditation for beginners. Taking things a step further, when you use the combination of the Muse headband and the Muse app you’ll get real-time feedback on what’s happening in your brain while you meditate prompting you to focus while rewarding your moments of calm. While you meditate, you’ll hear gentle ocean waves or rainforest rainfall get progressively louder as your mind drifts, signalling you to bring your attention back to your breath. This makes building a consistent practice of focused attention meditation faster, easier, and more enjoyable.
It’s also important to note that if you have been diagnosed with clinical depression, or think you may have clinical depression and are undiagnosed that it’s important to work with a trained health care professional to make sure you’re getting the proper care you need.
- 1. CMHA National. (2018). Fast Facts about Mental Illness – CMHA National. [online] Available at: https://cmha.ca/about-cmha/fast-facts-about-mental-illness [Accessed 23 Feb. 2018].
- 2. Nami.org. (2018). Mental Health By the Numbers | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. [online] Available at: https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers [Accessed 23 Feb. 2018].
- World Health Organization. (2018). Depression. [online] Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/ [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].
- Kuyken, W., Hayes, R., Barrett, B., Byng, R., Dalgleish, T., Kessler, D., Lewis, G., Watkins, E., Morant, N., Taylor, R. and Byford, S. (2015). The effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy compared with maintenance antidepressant treatment in the prevention of depressive relapse/recurrence: results of a randomized controlled trial (the PREVENT study). Health Technology Assessment, [online] 19(73), pp.1-124. Available at: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2814%2962222-4/abstract [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].
- Association of translocator protein total distribution volume with duration of untreated major depressive disorder: a cross-sectional study. Setiawan E., Attwells S., Wilson A.A., Mizrahi R., Rusjan P.M., Miler L., Xu C.,(…), Meyer J.H. (2018) The Lancet Psychiatry, 5 (4) , pp. 339-347.
- Xueyi Shen, Lianne M. Reus, Simon R. Cox, Mark J. Adams, David C. Liewald, Mark E. Bastin, Daniel J. Smith, Ian J. Deary, Heather C. Whalley, Andrew M. McIntosh. Subcortical volume and white matter integrity abnormalities in major depressive disorder: findings from UK Biobank imaging data. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-05507-6
- Psychology Today. (2018). Curing Depression with Mindfulness Meditation. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mindfulness-in-frantic-world/201110/curing-depression-mindfulness-meditation [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].
- Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E., Gould, N., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D., Shihab, H., Ranasinghe, P., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E., Haythornthwaite, J. and Cramer, H. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Akupunktur, [online] 57(3), pp.26-27. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1809754.
- Psychology Today. (2018). This Is Your Brain on Meditation. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].
- Tang et al. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(35), 15649-52 .
- McEwen, B.S. Mood disorders and allostatic load. Biol. Psychiat. 54, 200207 (2003).