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What Happens To The Brain During Major Depressive Disorder?

What Happens To The Brain During Major Depressive Disorder?

The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that severe depression, clinically referred to in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), as major depressive disorder (MDD), is “characterized by persistent sadness and a lack of interest or pleasure in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities,” resulting in significant impairment in one’s daily life. Harvard Medical School explains that the most prominent symptoms of MDD include a severe and persistent low mood, profound sadness, or a sense of despair. Major depressive disorder is recognized as the leading cause of disability in America for individuals ages fifteen to forty-four. Findings from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) indicate that 8.4% of all U.S. adults, which is equal to nearly 21 million people, had at least one major depressive episode. The highest prevalence (17%) occurred in people between ages eighteen to twenty-five years old.

The Brain

Major depressive disorder is a complex disease that cannot solely be attributed to a chemical imbalance in one’s brain. In fact, neuroimaging studies have confirmed that major depressive disorder involves different areas of the brain with structural and functional abnormalities. Major depressive disorder has the potential to affect physical structures in the brain that can range from inflammation and oxygen restriction to actual shrinking. Depression causes the hippocampus (area of the brain connected to learning and memory) to release excess levels of cortisol (the primary stress hormone). When the brain gets flooded with cortisol, it can interfere with the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which causes the hippocampus to atrophy and shrink in size. High levels of cortisol have the opposite effect on the amygdala (area of the brain that governs emotions, impulsivity, emotional behavior, and motivation responsible for emotions) as the excessive release of cortisol due to depression causes the amygdala to become hyperactive and enlarged. This results in the release of unnecessary chemicals and hormones. There is a clear link between brain inflammation and depression. The results from one study found that people who had struggled with depression for more than ten years have 30% more brain inflammation. Brain inflammation can exacerbate symptoms of depression, interfere with neurotransmitters that regulate mood, and negatively impact learning and memory.

For Information and Support

Every family in need of mental health treatment must select a program that will best suit the needs of their family. When one member of a family struggles, it impacts everyone in the family unit. To maximize the benefits of treatment we work closely with the entire family to ensure that everyone is receiving the support they need through these difficult times.

Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know needs mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person’s life, in the long term. Pursuing support at the beginning of one’s journey can put the individual in the best position to learn how to manage themselves in a healthy way so they can go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.


We are available to answer any questions you may have regarding mental health treatment and our residential program, anytime. Contact us today using the form to the right.

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