The University of Oxford found that teenagers with depression “mute” upsetting information, while depressed adults do not have the same coping mechanism
When it comes to depression, new studies are constantly confirming or shifting what experts understand about the human brain – and how to help it. One study found that neuromodulation could significantly change ‘incurable’ lifelong depression, within thirty minutes. People with depression are also an overlooked vulnerable group, who are predicted by UCL scientists to have long-term health and financial consequences from the UK lockdown.
Now, researchers at Oxford believe that there is a crucial difference between teenagers with depression and depressed adults – specifically in the younger cohorts ability to neurologically “mute” their responses to upsetting information.
Photos of people being attacked created little response
The team compared 29 depressed adolescents to 16 healthy adolescents, aged 13 to 18.
They used images of people crying, visibly hurt, or someone being attacked. The team found that photos of distressing situations created reduced activity in comparison to non-depressed teenagers – especially in the occipital pole (which processes visual information, found at the rear of the brain) and the fusiform gyrus (which is involved in the processing of faces, body and colours, found near the brain stem and cerebellum).
“Depressed adolescents may avoid distressing information”
Dr Liliana Capitão, lead researcher, said: “The ability to regulate emotions is key to social and emotional development in adolescents. What we have seen in this study makes us believe that depressed adolescents may avoid distressing information, which could potentially intensify their experience of depression.
“However there are other possible interpretations and we need more work to confirm our ideas. For instance, this could also reflect a form of “emotional numbness”, where depressed adolescents shut down their emotions and do not feel “involved” in what’s happening around them, or even reflect difficulties with taking another person’s perspective, as the images showed distressing situations that were happening to others.
“This effect has not been found in previous work using the same distressing images in adults with depression, which could imply that there are potential vulnerabilities in the brains of depressed adolescents which are not found in the brains of depressed adults.”
A “window of opportunity” to intervene?
Commenting, Dr Henricus Ruhe, psychiatrist and principal investigator at Radboudumc, Nijmegen, the Netherlands said: “This is an interesting line of evidence of what might go wrong in young people who are depressed. First, it is unique to have recruited such a sample of (depressed) youngsters and get them involved in this intensive fMRI research and treat them with an antidepressant or placebo.
“More knowledge about depression in this age-group is extremely important as most affective disorders start in adolescence, but are often unrecognized.
“As the symptomatology and new episodes seem to worsen over time during early adulthood, depression during adolescence might indicate a window of opportunity to intervene and change the course of illness.”