neurosciencestuff: (Image caption: View of the left…


(Image caption:
View of the left hypothalamus, in the centre of the brain, shown from
the left temple. This shows that in those affected by depressive
disorder, some regions of the hypothalamus are larger (red) compared to
their healthy counterparts, where some are even smaller (yellow). Credit: © Acta
Psychiatrica Scandinavica)

In depression brain region for stress control is larger

Although depression is one of the leading psychiatric disorders in
Germany, its cause remains unclear. A recent study at the Max Planck
Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig,
Germany, and the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy of the
University Clinic in Leipzig found that those affected by depressive
disorder have a larger hypothalamus compared to their healthy
counterparts. This could explain why many sufferers show increased
levels of the stress hormone cortisol and are very often afflicted with
periods of tension.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 322 million people
worldwide were affected by depression in 2015—4.4 percent of the world’s
population. In the search for the underlying causes of this widespread
disorder, researchers have concluded that it could arise from
predisposition combined with an individual’s environmental stress

So far, it is known that people more predisposed to depression show a
dysregulation of the endogenous stress response system, otherwise known
as the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is
normally triggered when we are faced with a stressful situation. This
response increases the amount of cortisol, providing the body with more
energy when faced with a potential threat or challenge. Once the
challenging situation has passed, several control mechanisms in the HPA
axis normally ensure the system returns to a balanced state.

In people who suffer with depressive disorder or who are more
predisposed, this is not the case. Instead, a malfunction of the
feedback mechanism results in a stress response operating at full
throttle, even when there is no apparent stressful situation. Until now,
the underlying reason for this hyperactive stress response system and
the role of the hypothalamus as its overall control unit has remained

In a recent study with 84 participants, scientists at the Max Planck
Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig
and the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy of the University
Clinic in Leipzig have revealed that in people with an affective
disorder, the left hypothalamus was on average five per cent larger than
that of their healthy counterparts. “We observed that this brain region
is enlarged in people with depression as well as in those with bipolar
disorder, two types of affective disorders”, says Stephanie Schindler, a
PhD student at both research institutes involved in the study and first
author of the underlying publication just published in the scientific
journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. Furthermore, in one of
the groups of participants with depression it was also revealed that the
more severe the depression, the larger the hypothalamus was. Medication
did not have any effect on the size of the hypothalamus.

These relations were found out using a high-resolution 7-Tesla MRI
scanner. The severity of disorders was measured using standardised
questionnaires and interviews.

Although studies have shown this brain structure to be more active in
people with depression or bipolar disorder, it is not yet known what
role a larger hypothalamus plays. “Higher activity could lead to
structural changes and thus to a larger volume of the hypothalamus
normally the size of a one cent coin”, says Stefan Geyer, one of the
study’s principal investigators and head of the research group Anatomical Analysis of the Organization of the Human and Non-Human Primate Brain at MPI CBS.

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