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.

 

These 11 Habits of People With Concealed Depression

Blogger Lexi Herrick writes, “Depression often goes unseen, unrecognized, and undiagnosed. A person with concealed depression is someone who is conditioned to deal with their inner demons in a way that doesn’t make them clearly visible. They may or may not be diagnosed, and this may or may not be something they’ve shared with even their closest of companions. The problem is that the world becomes darkest when we all stop being able to understand each other. We tend to believe that hardship is worn openly upon one’s chest like a battle scar, but many of these wounds do not easily reveal themselves to those that do not take the time to look.” Read the rest of her blog.

How to Prevent Stress From Shrinking Your Brain

 

Have you ever felt so stressed out and overwhelmed that you can’t think straight? We now know that prolonged stress or trauma is associated with decreased volume in areas of the human brain responsible for regulating thoughts and feelings, enhancing self-control, and creating new memories. A new research study, published in today’s issue of Nature Medicine, is a first step in uncovering the genetic mechanism underlying these brain changes.

Depressed People’s Brains are More FragmentedIn this study, conducted by Professor Richard Dumin and colleagues from Yale University, scientists compared the genetic makeup of donated brain tissue from deceased humans with and without major depression. Only the depressed patients’ brain tissues showed activation of a particular genetic transcription factor, or “switch.” While each human cell contains more than 20,000 genes, only a tiny fraction of them are expressed at a given time. Transcription factors, when activated, act like light switches, causing genes to be turned on or off. This transcription factor, known as GATA1, switches off the activity of five genes necessary for forming synaptic connections between brain neurons. Brain neurons or nerve cells contain branches or dendrites that send and receive signals from other cells, leading to interconnected networks of emotion and cognition. The scientists hypothesized that in the depressed patients’ brains, prolonged stress exposure led to a disruption of brain systems involved in thinking and feeling. Depressed brains appeared to have more limited and fragmented information processing abilities. This finding may explain the pattern of repetitive negative thinking that depressed people exhibit. It is as if their brains get stuck in a negative groove of self-criticism and pessimism. They are unable to envision more positive outcomes or more compassionate interpretations of their actions.

Glucocorticoids Damage Brain Neurons 

The stress response involves activation of a brain region known as the amygdala, which sends a signal alerting the organism to the threat. This results in activation of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and release of a cascade of hormones, including cortisol, widely regarded as the quintessential “stress hormone.” While short-term cortisol release prepares the organism to sustain “fight or flight” and fend off an attacker, long-term exposure appears to cause brain neurons to shrink and interferes with their ability to send and receive information via branches called dendrites. In animal studies, under chronically stressful conditions, glucocorticoids such as cortisol can remain elevated for long periods.

Traumatic Experiences Can Shrink the Hippocampus in Those Who Don’t Recover

This finding is another piece of the puzzle regarding how stress and prolonged distress may impair our ability to think in creative and flexible ways. Research in both mice and humans has demonstrated an association between stress exposure (foot shock in mice, life events in humans) and shrinking of the hippocampus – the brain center responsible for forming new, time-sequenced memories. Studies in women with PTSD resulting from childhood sexual abuse and Vietnam veterans with PTSD have shown 12-26 percent decreases in hippocampal volume, relative to those without PTSD. In another study, patients recovered from long-term major depression showed a 15 percent decrease in volume of the hippocampus, compared to non-depressed patients.

Major Life Stress Damages the Prefrontal Cortex

In addition to hippocampal shrinkage, major life stress may shrink brain neurons in the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the brain area responsible for problem-solving, adaptation to challenge, emotional processing and regulation, impulse control, and regulation of glucose and insulin metabolism. In a study of 100 healthy participants conducted by Dr. Rajita Sinha and colleagues at Yale University, and published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, those with more adverse life events had greater shrinkage of gray matter in the PFC, compared to their less-stressed peers. Recent major life events, such as a job loss, make people less emotionally aware while life traumas, such as sexual abuse, seem to go further, in damaging mood centers that regulate pleasure and reward, increasing vulnerability to addiction and decreasing the brain’s ability to bounce back.

Summary 

While the evidence is not yet conclusive, these studies suggest that prolonged exposure to stress can shrink the brain, both via the damaging effects of cortisol on brain neurons and by disrupting expression of genes that facilitate neuronal connections. This raises the question of whether there is anything we can do to prevent such damage. Since we can’t always control how much we are exposed to financial, relationship, or illness stress, are there preventive activities we can do to maintain cognitive resilience so we can continue to deal effectively with the stressors? It is not known if we can reverse the damage by these methods, but we may lessen it and make our brains more resilient to stress.

Brain-Enhancing Activities to Combat Stress

While the below list is not exhaustive, the three activities below have enhanced brain functioning in controlled studies.

Take a Daily DHA Supplement – DHA or Docosahexaenoic acid is an Omega-3 fatty acid that is a central building block of brain tissue. DHA is thought to combat the inflammatory effects of cortisol and the plaque buildup associated with vulnerability to Alzheimer’s disease. According to Dr. Mehmet Oz, in one study, a dose of 600mg of DHA taken daily for 6 months led the brain to perform as if it were three years younger.

Exercise Most Days – In studies with mice exercise led to a more improved performance on cognitive tasks than exposure to enriched environments with lots of activities and stimulation. Exercise leads to increases in BDNF or brain-derived neurotropic factor, a substance that strengthens brain cells and neuronal connections. BDNF is also thought to promote neurogenesis or the creation of new brain cells from existing stem cells in the hippocampus. Although these effects can’t be studied in living human brains, researchers have found increases in BDNF in the bloodstream of humans following workouts.

Do Yoga, Meditate, or Pray – These activities can activate what scientist Herb Benson at Massachusetts General Hospital calls “the relaxation response,” which lowers blood pressure and heart rate and lowers subjective anxiety. Benson and scientists from a genetics institute showed, in a recent study, that inducing the relaxation response can beneficially alter the expression of genes involved in inflammation, programmed cell death and how the body handles free radicals. The effects shown were in the same genes implicated in PTSD and depression. According to Jeffery Dusek, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study, “Changes in the activation of these same genes have previously been seen in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder; but the relaxation-response-associated changes were the opposite of stress-associated changes and were much more pronounced in the long-term practitioners.”

About the Author

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and expert on Mindfulness and Positive Psychology.  Dr. Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations,  life, weight loss, or career coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. Visit her website: http://www.drmelaniegreenberg.biz

This article originally appeared in Psychology Today.

 

Weathering the Dead Zone of Depression

There is a dead zone in a depressed person’s life where nothing seems to happen.

Except for the pain of the absence of everything.

Such anguish is so overwhelming that every other concern is squashed in its wake.  Our capacity for willful actions seems to be gone; we can’t “figure it out.”

We are stuck.  And it sucks.

I have learned a lot about this “zone” over the years, its patterns, and how to handle it.  It’s really like learning to surf a giant, dark wave.  To handle these waves, you need to prepare yourself before the next big ones roll in.

When I’m entering a dead zone, I use positive affirmations I’ve created to “talk back” to my depression. I don’t let the toxic voice of depression drown me out.  It’s important to empower yourself in whatever ways you can during these times because depression will lead you to falsely conclude that

New Research Shows Depression Linked With Inflammation

Dr. Marylynn Wei writes, “One traditional hypothesis of depression is that people who are depressed have a deficiency in monoamine neurotransmitters in the body, which leads to low levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. But growing evidence supports that at least some forms of depression may also be linked to ongoing low-grade inflammation in the body.  Brain imaging of people with depression show that their brain scans have increased neuroinflammation. When your body is in an inflammatory state fighting off the common cold or flu, you can experience symptoms overlapping with depression— disrupted sleep, depressed mood, fatigue, foggy-headedness, and impaired concentration.” Read the rest of her blog.

Rediscovering Who You Are After a Severe Depressive Episode

Blogger Joy Biddell writes, “But what I’m finding even harder than mundane tasks is rediscovering who I am. Depression stole my identity and my joy. Trying to find myself again while still feeling exhausted, low and riddled with anxiety is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Everything I knew and enjoyed feels like a distant memory and building myself back up feels like an impossible task. I can’t remember what genuine happiness feels like. I’ve had glimpses of it, but the feeling doesn’t stick around. I can’t remember how to socialize, even texting friends is difficult. I used to enjoy coloring, church, volunteering, reading, driving with tunes blasting and singing at the top of my voice (even in traffic), going out with friends, going for meals out, long walks with the dogs, my partner and seeing family. All these things are incredibly hard to do now. I either can’t remember how to do them, get too anxious and overwhelmed to do them or physically can’t do them.” Read her full blog here.

Diving Into Hell: A Powerful Memoir of Depression

From The New York Times, book reviewer and best-selling author Andrew Solomon writes, “Not so long ago, the mere fact of writing that you had suffered from depression conferred a badge of courage, but such confessions have devolved into a dull mark of solipsistic forthrightness. Famous people use such disclosures to persuade you that they are just like you, perhaps even more vulnerable; it’s a way of compensating for the discomfort attached to their glamor. Indeed, in an increasingly stratified world, people with any modicum of privilege may reveal their depression as an assertion of their common humanity. Clinical misery has taken over from death as the great equalizer. Vanity of vanities, all is depression. Into this morass daringly comes Daphne Merkin with the long-awaited chronicle of her own consuming despair, ‘This Close to Happiness: A Reckoning with Depression.'” Read the entire article here.

3 Practices for Letting Go of Looping Thoughts

Jenna Cho, lawyer and author of the book, “The Anxious Lawyer” writes, “The ability to gently let go of negative looping thoughts has been perhaps one of the most powerful and unexpected benefits of having a regular meditation practice. Research indicates that meditation can help us process and decrease the impact of negative emotions, such as anger. If you find yourself stuck in an endless negative thought loop, here are three practices that you may find useful.” Read the entire blog here.

8 Ways to Persevere When Depression Persists

Therese Borchard blogs, “Although I like to cling to the promise that my depression will get better — since it always has in the past — there are long, painful periods when it seems as though I’m going to have to live with these symptoms forever. In the past, there was a time when I had been struggling with death thoughts for what seemed like forever. The death thoughts did eventually disappear, but I’m always mindful of my depression. Every decision I make in a 24-hour period, from what I eat for breakfast to what time I go to bed, is driven by an effort to protect my mental health.” Read her entire blog here.

Depression: A Psychiatrist’s Recommendations for Self-care

Psychiatrist Monica Starkman, M.D. writes, “In clinical research, one uses the scientific method and studies just one treatment alone in order to assess its effectiveness. But in clinician mode, I am convinced that a combination of effective techniques increases the probability of a strongly positive result – and I don’t really care which of them did the most good. Here are five simple yet powerful treatments I recommend because they are both scientifically valid and clinically effective. Read her entire blog.

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