While French philosopher René Descartes recognized the cognitive capabilities of humankind in his famous proclamation “I think, therefore I am,” a new study suggests that perhaps depressed people should do that a little less.
“I think about my depression, therefore I am still depressed”? Maybe so. Dwelling on the self, without substantive resolution of issues, can feed the depression rather than ameliorate it.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) set out to study the effects of rumination (a kind of longer term dwelling on something) on the human brain. They had noted that brain scans of clinically depressed young adults showed hyperconnected emotional and cognitive networks, especially in areas related to rumination.
“Rumination is not a very healthy way of processing emotion,” said Dr. Scott Langenecker, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at UIC and one of the authors of the study.
The study, titled “Increased Coupling of Intrinsic Networks in Remitted Depressed Youth Predicts Rumination and Cognitive Control,” was recently published in PLOS One.
The UIC researchers employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to view the network connections in the brains of young people between the ages of 18 and 23 while in a resting state. Thirty of the subjects had previously experienced depression but were currently unmedicated and 23 were “healthy controls” who had never experienced depression.
“We wanted to see if the individuals who have had depression during their adolescence were different from their healthy peers,” said Dr. Rachel Jacobs, UIC research assistant professor in psychiatry and lead author of the study.
Researchers discovered that the participants with a previous history of depression had regions that were “hyperconnected” and related to areas of the brain related to rumination.
The hyper-connectivity could lessen the cognitive control of depressed people over their conditions and be a predictor of both treatment responses as well as provide meaningful statistical data about the possibilities of relapse.
“As rumination goes up, cognitive control goes down,” Langenecker noted.
In other words, if a person is thinking about the depression too much, it might make doing something about it more difficult.
Related studies of depression can offer additional insight. For instance, researchers have discovered differences between the thought processes of depressed and non-depressed adults. Depressed individuals often have more vague goals (to stop being depressed, to be happier) than their more sanguine counterparts, whose goals are more concrete, more active, and more quantifiable.
“If we can help youth learn how to shift out of maladaptive strategies such as rumination, this may protect them from developing chronic depression and help them stay well as adults,” Jacobs said.