How the Brain Responds to Sadness & Rumination
One of the biggest issues for people treating depression is how to prevent relapse. In order to do this a useful first step is to establish what's going on in the brain of a depressed person.
Certain characteristic thinking patterns occur with depressed people one of which is rumination. Any normal attempt to solve a problem requires some thought. The more complex the issue the more thinking is involved. Where upsetting emotions are involved we often brood over the situation or event. Where a solution to the problem can be found it's all well and good, but a feature of depressive thinking is brooding with little or no chance of resolution, called rumination.
Psychologists tend to distinguish between problem-focused forms of thinking (adaptive) and those that are passive and inward-focused (non-adaptive or maladaptive). Researchers at Stanford University have identified two distinct neural networks in the brain that reflect these two forms of thinking. Brain imaging technology reveals that depressed people have higher levels of activity in the brain that support maladaptive thinking, resulting in less effective ways of coping and a higher chance of severe depression.
There is now some evidence to say when previously depressed people experience even mild states of sadness, the way their brain responds can help predict whether or not they will relapse. Dr. Norman Farb, writing in Biological Psychiatry, has observed that patients who ruminate and activate the frontal lobes of the brain have a greater risk of relapsing into depression. Using MRI scanning techniques, sixteen formerly-depressed patients watched sad movie clips while their brains were being scanned. Over the next 18 months, nine of the volunteers relapsed into depression. These patients showed much higher activity in a particular area of the frontal lobes. As Farb states, responses in these areas are also linked to higher rumination scores. Patients who did not relapse showed much more activity in problem-solving areas of the brain.
What is needed now is some way of assessing whether those at risk for depressive relapses can be trained to change their way of responding to negative emotions. Equally, other forms of treatment might be developed that could target areas of the brain that become over-active when processing forms of negative or sad information.
Elsevier (2011, August 22). Good ruminations or bad ruminations in the depressed brain? Sciencedaily. Retrieved August 25, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110822101042.htm