New Research Provides Fresh Insight into Treating Depression

It is estimated that over 350 million people worldwide struggle with depression. The World Health Organization claims that depression is the leading cause of disability and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of diseases. Statistically speaking, women are about twice as likely to suffer from depression than men. Futher, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, “as many as one in 33 children and one in eight adolescents have clinical depression.” But new studies may change the way we see, and subsequently treat depression.

Common Depression Treatment and Side Effects

Currently, the most prevalent treatment option for those with depression is psychotherapy, which provides counseling for those struggling. Psychotherapy is usually combined with antidepressant medication to combat certain depressive symptoms like fatigue, low appetite, slow cognition and movement, and overall feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth.

While many believe strongly in the psychotherapy portion of depression treatment and the benefits of receiving proper counseling, antidepressant medications have been the subject of more debate due to their various side-effects which can sometimes have negative physical and/or psychological impact – ie: weird dreams, diarrhea, decreased libido, etc.

Researching Negative Side Effects

These side-effects have been a drawback for many individuals struggling with depression has lead some scientists like Dr. Greg Siegle to seek alternative options which treat depression as more of a physical ailment than a mental one. Dr. Siegle’s research focuses primarily on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which controls executive function, cognitive flexibility, and working memory.

Why this part of the brain? Research shows that people with depression have a more difficult time using their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when compared to their non-depressed counterparts. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, lack of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when combined with an  active ventromedial prefrontal cortex leads to increased chances of depression. This is because the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is primarily responsible for emotion, threat detection, and fear conditioning. While in a non-depressed brain these two cortices balance each other out in terms of neurotransmissions, depression could result from an imbalance in which the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is inactive or less active than it should be.

Cognitive Control Therapy

By examining depression as a physical ailment the key for treatment then lies in toning up the brain as a muscle. Dr. Siegle and his colleague’s work aims to strengthen this portion of the brain using what Dr. Siegle calls “cognitive control therapy”. What this entails is a doctor administering a gentle electrical current into the patient’s brain, over the scalp. In a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, “Both [Cognitive Control Therapy] alone and combined with [transcranial direct current stimulation] ameliorated depressive symptoms after the acute treatment period and at follow-up, with a response rate of approximately 25%. Older patients and those who presented better performance in the task throughout the trial (possibly indicating greater engagement and activation of the [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex]) had greater depression improvement in the combined treatment group.” And in Dr. Siegle’s own studies, cognitive control therapy, or CCT, has been shown to be successful in trial cases.

New Treatment Aimed At Ailing Symptoms of Depression

Dr. Siegle’s treatment does not aim to target depression as a whole, but rather to alleviate some of its most prevalent and persistent symptoms. According to Dr. Siegle: “Many depressed people think about things they don’t want to think about over and over again…Medications don’t help decrease rumination much. This suggests that even if you’re taking them, it might be helpful to get the rumination under control. In our research we set out to use these exercises to improve executive control and working memory.” In other words, CCT aims to help patients suffering from depression control their thoughts and memories so as to not contribute to or strengthen their depression from unwanted ruminations.

That being said, Dr. Siegle emphasizes that his treatment is not to replace traditional health care and therapy for those with depression. He argues that “I am not recommending that people stop seeing their therapist or stop taking their medication to take this program” Currently, the program is actively undergoing clinical trials but Dr. Siegle is hopeful that this treatment can alleviate some of the symptoms of depression, helping the overall recovery process of the patient. We can only wait and see where this goes, but one thing is for certain: Dr. Siegle’s studies have shown that depression is both a physical as well as mental illness. Therefore, the future of treatment for depression might just seek to address the physical as well as psychological aspects, offering a more encompassing approach to treating depression as a whole.