MRI study finds link between depression, brain connectivity

Rachel Jacobs and Scott Langenecker with an MRI machine

Researchers Rachel Jacobs and Scott Langenecker, both in psychiatry, are
using MRI imaging of brain to study depression.— Photo: Joshua Clark


Depression may be better predicted and understood with findings by UIC researchers that young adults who experienced mental illness have hyper-connected emotional and cognitive networks in the brain.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brain connectivity of young adults ages 18 to 23 as they rested. Thirty unmedicated young adults who had experienced depression and 23 healthy young adults were tested.

“We wanted to see if the individuals who have had depression during their adolescence were different from their healthy peers,” said Rachel Jacobs, research assistant professor of psychiatry at UIC’s Institute for Juvenile Research and lead author of the study, published in PLOS ONE.

The researchers found many regions that are “hyper-connected — or talking to each other a little too much — among those who have a history of depression,” Jacobs said. These hyper-connected brain networks were related to rumination, when individuals think about a problem over and over without seeking a solution.

“Rumination is not a very healthy way of processing emotion,” said Scott Langenecker, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology and corresponding author of the study. “Rumination is a risk factor for depression and for reoccurrence of depression if you’ve had it in the past.”

The researchers looked at cognitive control (the ability to engage and disengage in thought processes or behaviors), a predictor of response to treatment and relapse of illness. “Cognitive control and rumination, as you might expect, are related to each other. As rumination goes up, cognitive control goes down,” Langenecker said.

The researchers will study the young adults over time to see whether these hyper-connectivities predict a recurrence of illness.

Psychosocial and medication treatments for depression can be helpful, said Jacobs, but within two years of recovery, half of teenagers will relapse. The transition to adulthood, a time when brain networks are nearly mature, may be a critical time for interventions.

“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.

“We think that depression is a developmental outcome, and it’s not a foregone conclusion that people need to become depressed. If we can provide prevention and treatment to those people that are most at risk, we might be able to prevent depression, reduce the number of depressive episodes, or reduce their severity,” Langenecker said.


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