The Neuroscience of Depression: An Interview with Dr. Alex Korb

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The following is an edited transcript of the podcast recorded interview with Dr. Alex Korb.  This transcript has not been reviewed and is not a word-by-word rendering of the entire interview.

Hi, I’m Dan Lukasik from lawyerswithdepression.com. Today’s guest is Dr. Alex Korb.  Dr. Korb is a neuroscientist, writer, and coach.  He’s studied the brain for over fifteen years, attending Brown University as an undergraduate and earning his Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. He has over a dozen peer-reviewed journal articles on depression and is also the author of the book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression One Small Change at a Time. Interesting, he’s also coached the UCLA Women’s Ultimate Freesbie team for twelve seasons and is a three-time winner for Ultimate Coach of the Year.  His expertise extends into leadership and motivation, stress and anxiety, mindfulness, physical fitness, and even standup comedy. Welcome to the show.

Dr. Korb:

Thank you, great to be here.

Dan:

Let’s begin for our audience.  You’re a neuroscientist. What is neuroscience?

Dr. Korb:

Neuroscience is simply the study of the brain and nervous system. It’s a branch of biology, but it also incorporates aspects of psychology, psychiatry, and neurobiology.  It’s anything that’s going on in the brain and nervous system all under the purview of neuroscience.

Dan:

You’ve studied depression as a neuroscientist?

Dr. Korb:

Yes, that’s what I wrote my dissertation on. The aspect of neuroscience that I’m most interested in is what underlies the neural basis for our moods and emotions, behaviors, and psychiatric illnesses. Some peer-reviewed articles look at schizophrenia as well as other psychiatric disorders like depression which have a lot of basis in neuroscience and we just don’t fully understand what is happening in the brain.

Dan:

Based on your research, can you tell us what’s going on in the brain when someone is suffering from depression?

Dr. Korb:

The best way to describe it is a dysfunction in frontal-limbic communication. To simplify it, there’s a problem with the way the thinking, feeling, and action circuits in the brain are communicating with each other.  Those all have different regions of the brain that are more dedicated to each aspect of thoughts, feelings, and actions. But, normally, there’s a dynamic of how these regions are supposed to communicate with each other, and there’s something with depression that’s a little bit off.

Dan:

Can the same be said for anxiety as far as what’s going on in the brain?

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Dr. Korb:

Yes, anxiety and depression have a lot of overlap regarding the neuroscience and neurobiology behind them.  A lot of the same brain regions are involved. For example, the amygdala, which is often called the fear center of the brain, but is involved in a lot of emotional expressions, that’s one of the core emotion regions in the brain, and it plays a role in both depression and anxiety.  And there’s just a lot of overlap in brain regions, and neurochemistry that underlies these disorders and it’s one of the reasons why anxiety is one of the most common features of depression and they often co-occur together.

Dan:

When I’ve tried to explain what I was suffering from, and my symptoms and I called it “depression,” most people didn’t have any frame of reference for that. They usually thought of it as “sadness.” With respect to sadness and depression, are there different areas of the brain that pertain to sadness that are different from clinical depression?

Dr. Korb:

There’s a lot of overlap between sadness and depression, but a lot of the misunderstanding that people have is that we use the term depression and sadness, “I’m feeling depressed” or, “I’m feeling sad,” we use those colloquially, very interchangeably.

But medically, or neuroscientifically, they’re very different.

Depression and the diagnosis of depression are a lot more than simple sadness.  In fact, a lot of people who suffer from depression don’t feel sad per se. They can often feel an emptiness where emotion should be.  They have a lot of other symptoms such as hopelessness and feelings of helplessness, guilt and shame, isolation, and anxiety can be a part of it.

They can have fatigue, problems falling asleep or staying asleep or even sleeping too much and, generally, the things that they used to find enjoyable they no longer find enjoyable. Everything just feels very difficult.

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It’s hard to explain to someone why it’s difficult because it seems like it shouldn’t be. It’s a much deeper feeling of being stuck than most people experience.  I think the average person if you can think of how you felt after the week of your greatest heartbreak, that sort of touches the edge of what it means to be depressed. It’s not the depth of how badly you feel, but that you can’t escape it. For example, I like to think of depression as a traffic jam.  When you enter a traffic jam, sometimes there’s an accident. The cars are stopped, and you sit there and wait.  And you don’t know how long the traffic jam is going to be. But for most people, it was just a little stoppage on their way. But for people with depression, it’s something that their brain just can’t quite escape. They can try and try, but their brain is stuck in the pattern of activity that just drags along, and the traffic jam just continues.

Dan:

That’s a great explanation of the experience of depression. Both what’s going on in the brain and psychologically. I think people want to know what are some of the causes of depression? Many people once they’ve often been diagnosed try to figure out for themselves, and people who care about them try to figure out?

Dr. Korb:

Depression can have a huge number of different causes. This is where the traffic jam analogy does a lot to help us understand depression. If you see a traffic jam, you can say, “Oh, what caused it?” Well, a traffic jam can come from any number of causes. There’s construction on the freeway, or there was an accident, there was heavy rain or fog, or it could just be that everyone decided to leave work at the same time, and there’s no specific “cause,” it’s just that the interaction – the dynamic interaction – of all those cars just reaches a tipping point.

With depression, it’s the same way. Often, it can be precipitated by a big life event such as a divorce, or breakup, or death in the family. Or smaller life events such as a perceived emotional embarrassment or you didn’t get that promotion.  But, often it’s not “caused” by anything.  It’s just the dynamic interaction of your brain circuits with each other, combined with the sum of your current life circumstances, which causes the brain to get stuck in a certain pattern of activity and reactivity.

That’s much more likely to happen for some people than others because some people’s brains are just more at risk for falling into that pattern. This can be based on the genes you got from your parents, and your early childhood experiences and the coping patterns you’ve been doing your whole life shaped the neurocircuitry and neurochemistry of your particular brain.  So, it’s not always a specifically, identifiable cause.  I think that’s one of the reasons why people, sometimes, don’t quite believe that it’s real or don’t think they should be suffering it. But, it’s very similar to that traffic analogy where it just “sort of happened” for seemingly no reason. It’s just caused by the fact that is vague, nonlinear, dynamic system.

Dan:

Why did you write the book, The Upward Spiral? There are plenty of scientists out there who study depression, but not many of them write a book for the general public on the topic.  What is it that led you to write this kind of book?

Dr. Korb:

I just realized that there was so much useful neuroscience out there that wasn’t being effectively delivered to the people who needed it most. One of the things that made me realize that is from when I was coaching Ultimate Freesbie. After a few months, one of the girls on the team revealed to me that she had been suffering from major depression and that she’d been suffering for years, and, tragically, many months later she ended up committing suicide. It was a devastating event in my life. This was back when I was still studying neuroscience, but before I had decided to go to grad school and study depression. That event led me to want to understand exactly what was going on in her brain that could lead her to do something like that. How could the brain get stuck in a disease like this?

That lead me to going to grad school and doing my dissertation on depression to try and understand and share some of these things with other people. As I was doing my dissertation, I realized that, yes, it’s good to advance the science, but there was already so much good science out there that was so beneficial. I didn’t think that anyone was doing a good enough job communicating clearly exactly about what was happening in the brain in depression and about all the little life changes that you can make that have measurable effects on brain activity and brain chemistry.

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Dan:

The second part of your book is devoted to eight specific things you can do to alleviate depression. Quickly, they exercise your brain, set goals and make decisions, give your brain a rest, develop positive habits, biofeedback, develop the ‘gratitude circuit,’ the power of others, and your brain in therapy. We don’t have enough time to focus on all eight, so why don’t we focus in on one or two. What I thought was fascinating is that you give the backdrop for what is going on in the brain when you do these things.  A few things that popped into my mind were gratitude and your brain in therapy. What about gratitude? How can it help depression?

Dr. Korb:

Gratitude can have a lot of powerful effects on the brain. And one of the reasons going back to why I wrote this book, is that there are tons of books out there that will tell you different life changes that you can make that will help with depression, but I’ve found that a lot of them are unsatisfying because they don’t explain, why. Therefore, it’s not as convincing, and it’s very easy for people to dismiss.

So when I talk about gratitude and how practicing gratitude can be so powerful in overcoming depression, a lot of people can resist that idea because it sounds so hokey.  But if I can point to specific neuroscience studies that show that it has measurable effects in changing brain activity and brain chemistry, then you’re much more likely to do it and it gives you a much better understanding of what’s going on. Gratitude has been shown to, if people who keep a gratitude journal, improve the quality of their sleep, and sleep symptoms of depression are one of the causes of depression. The reason why I called my book, The Upward Spiral because depression can sort of be seen as a “downward spiral” where one symptom or one event can lead to seemingly to a whole cascade of events that keep you stuck. So, gratitude can help break the downward spiral that’s coming from sleep problems that are leading to difficulty in concentration, and that’s one place to break the loop.

Dan:

After reading the chapter on gratitude, I picked up a spiral notebook and started a gratitude list. It was more of a lifetime gratitude list. It’s amazing. I came up with eighty things. I was surprised. So often my experience with depression is that we ruminate about negative things. We just don’t take the time, or don’t have the skill to savor and reflect on the good things in our lives.  It seems what you’re saying is that this practice has effects in the brain.

Dr. Korb:

Yes, when you’re in a depressed state it’s much harder to see the positive aspects of your life. But that’s why it’s all the more important to build a habit of looking for those positive things because often the most important feature of gratitude is not finding something to be grateful for. It’s remembering to look in the first place because that activates the prefrontal cortex which is the more thinking part of the brain which helps it to regulate the emotional regions of the brain that are going haywire in depression.

And gratitude increases activity in the key region of the brain called the cingulate cortex that sits at the intersection between the emotional limbic system and the rational prefrontal cortex and helps modulate communication between those. Remembering things in your past that you are happy or grateful for actually increases the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin in that same brain region and serotonin is one of the most common targets for antidepressant medications.  Practicing gratitude is having effects in key brain regions that we know contribute to depression and in the neurotransmitter systems that are contributing to depression.

Dan:

I also found it interesting your chapter on our brains and therapy. What’s interesting is that many people who treat with a therapist find comfort and solace in going to therapy when they are struggling with depression. They walk out, and they often do feel better at times don’t’ always understand why they feel better.  Or, we know, there’s a recent study from National Institute of Mental Health, which concluded that as many as eighty percent of people in this country get no treatment for depression whether it be antidepressants or therapy.  So, why is it important, if at all, for people to go to therapy who struggle with depression?

Dr. Korb:

The chapter that I wrote on therapy encompasses not just psychotherapy – going to talk to someone – but it also includes medical therapy such as antidepressant medication or other forms of therapy like neuromodulation techniques. These have been demonstrated through rigorous, double-blind studies that show they have powerful effects on treating depression.  Going to see a professional if you think you are depressed is a hugely important step because they can put at your disposal all the advances of western medicine.

What’s interesting – and it’s the last chapter in the book – and it’s funny how many comments I get because they say, “You left antidepressants to the end because it’s not that important and there are other life changes people can do.” Another psychiatrist will say to me, “Why are you so dismissive of antidepressant medication? They are hugely important in the treatment of depression.”  It’s neither of those. I agree that antidepressants and psychotherapy are extremely important in the treatment of depression, and if you think you are suffering from depression, you should go to see a health professional whether it’s just your doctor or you go to see a psychotherapist.

I just don’t think antidepressants are the entire answer.

For some people, I would say about one-third of people suffering from depression; antidepressants are the answer. You can get over your depression completely simply be taking a pill. You don’t know if you might be one of those people. So, you might as well see a doctor and find out.

For the other half or two-thirds of people, antidepressant medication can still be a huge part of the answer, even if it’s not the entire answer. Taking antidepressants can also help you make these other small life changes such as increasing exercise, or changing your sleep habits, or practicing gratitude.  As you make the other small life changes, then things can start to spiral upward.

Dan:

It’s been an informative and very interesting interview with you Dr. Korb.  I want to thank you for being on the show and I highly recommend listeners to pick up and read his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression One Small Change at a Time.  Join us next week for another interesting interview at Lawyerswithdepression.com.

I encourage everyone to check out Dr. Korb’s website at alexkorbphd.com.

 

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