Having depression may correlate with certain brain changes, including reduced gray matter, neurotransmitter disruptions, and inflammation. People with depression may also experience memory problems.

Depression is a mood disorder that affects at least 17 million adults in the United States. Symptoms include persistent sadness and loss of interest in everyday activities. In some people, depression may also lead to suicidal thoughts.

This article explains the link between depression and the brain, including how depression may affect the brain, if it is possible to reverse those changes, and when to speak with a doctor about depression.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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Depression correlates with changes to the brain that can affect daily function and mood. These changes may affect the following areas:

  • Brain volume: According to a 2018 study, there is a correlation between major depressive disorder and reduced volumes of gray matter. Gray matter forms the outer layer of the brain.
  • Neurotransmitters: Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow electricity to travel between cells in the brain and nervous system. A 2018 article suggests the neurotransmitters serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine behave abnormally in people with depression.
  • Inflammation: People with depression may have above-average levels of translocator protein, which indicates elevated levels of brain inflammation.

Depression and memory

Another 2018 article suggests that depression may correlate with the following memory difficulties:

  • difficulty remembering happy or positive events
  • a tendency to remember unhappy or negative events
  • reduced ability to recall memories of all kinds

The authors suggest that chronic stress and certain brain changes, such as reduced hippocampal volume, may play a role in these effects among people with depression. However, they emphasize the need for further research.

Learn more about depression and memory loss.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), depression can occur due to environmental, psychological, genetic, and biological factors. Treatments for depression may target the brain and seek to reverse some of the changes outlined above.

For example, antidepressant medications change how the brain uses or produces certain chemicals that affect a person’s mood. Antidepressant medications may include:

The NIMH highlights antidepressants as a common treatment for depression, which can either be used alone or alongside other treatment options.

Other treatments

Psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), aim to help people with depression learn new ways of thinking.

If a person does not respond to medication or psychotherapy, doctors may also consider brain stimulation therapies, which use electricity to activate certain brain areas.

This may include transcranial magnetic stimulation, a noninvasive technique that uses magnetic pulses to stimulate parts of the brain.

However, the NIMH emphasizes that these therapies are typically a last resort and are still undergoing investigation as a treatment option for people with depression.

If someone thinks they might have depression, the NIMH advises speaking with a healthcare professional. For a formal diagnosis, symptoms must typically last for at least 2 weeks and may include the following:

In some cases, an individual with depression may experience thoughts of death or suicide. People should seek immediate medical advice if they have suicidal thoughts.

Alongside getting professional help and treatment for depression, the American Psychiatric Association suggests that the following steps may help people to manage and reduce symptoms:

People can also reach out to family members, friends, healthcare professionals, and local support groups to speak about their experiences and receive support for their condition.

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.

Supporting someone with depression

The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends the following tips for supporting someone with depression:

  • Learn about depression to better understand how it may affect someone.
  • Learn early symptoms of depression to proactively offer support.
  • Be honest and kind when speaking to someone with depression.
  • Offer help and follow through with promises.
  • Practice active listening.
  • Remain calm even if a friend or family member is in a crisis.
  • Reach out to other people who can share experiences and provide emotional support.

Learn more tips for providing emotional support.

Depression is a mood disorder that can cause sadness, low energy, and suicidal thoughts. Research suggests that depression may correlate with changes in some regions of the brain.

For instance, people with depression may have higher rates of brain inflammation, neurotransmitter dysfunction, and reduced volumes of gray matter. People with depression may have difficulty recalling memories, particularly of positive experiences.

Treatment for depression may target the brain to boost chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, or help change how someone thinks.