New research has shown that people who experience depressive episodes demonstrate increases in brain activity when they think about themselves, compared with people who are not depressed. This is according to a study published in the journal PLOS One.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool in the UK say their findings “lead the way” for further studies looking at neural and psychological mechanisms linked to depression.

Explaining the reasons behind the study, Peter Kinderman, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool, told Medical News Today:

“We know that depression is associated with negative thoughts, and especially with negative thoughts about the self.”

“We wanted to know whether there were particular brain regions involved in this mode of thinking and, crucially, whether there were differences between people who were, and weren’t, depressed.”

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Researchers found that sufferers of depression who self-reflect show increases in activity in the medial superior frontal cortex of the brain – a region linked to processing self-related information.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers scanned the brains of 13 participants who were suffering from major depression. These were compared with 14 participants who did not have depression.

During the scans, the participants were asked to take part in an experiment. This required them to describe either themselves using positive, negative or neutral adjectives, or the British Queen.

The researchers note that they chose the British queen as the other person to describe because she is a figure that the participants were familiar with, but one who is significantly removed from their day-to-day lives.

Results of the study revealed that, unsurprisingly, when depressed participants described themselves, they chose more negative and neutral words and fewer positive words, compared with people who were not depressed.

However, when participants described themselves, the brain scans revealed increased blood oxygen levels in the medial superior frontal cortex of the brain – a region linked to processing self-related information – compared with when they were describing the queen. Furthermore, this area of the brain was activated more in participants who were depressed.

Prof. Kinderman told Medical News Today that their findings are important in understanding more about people who evaluate themselves:

Negative thoughts, especially about the self, are key elements of depressed mood, so it’s important to understand as much as we can about how these thoughts work.

That includes the role of the brain – which parts of the brain are involved in these kinds of thoughts, which neurotransmitters are involved, what connections does the brain make between different kinds of thoughts?”

“We weren’t trying to suggest that abnormalities of the brain are responsible for depressed mood – our findings apply to everyone – but it is important to understand how the brain processes information.”

Prof. Kinderman said that the next step from this research will be to look at whether patterns of brain activity found in this research may change as a result of psychological therapies and other interventions.

Addionally, he said the team would like to look at whether these brain activity patterns are a marker of vulnerability to depression.

“Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that depression is any kind of brain illness,” he added.

“The patterns of activity we observed are more likely to have come about as a result of our experiences or learning styles than as a result of physical processes. But it may be very important to understand whether these differences in brain activity change (or not) as a result of therapy.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that depression affects memory by impairing the process of pattern separation – the ability to differentiate things that are similar.