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Biological Explanation of Depression

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Biological Explanation of Depression

Depression is a mood disorder that causes people to feel unhappy and discontent. They may feel unmotivated and have periods of extreme sadness and negativity. It interferes with their daily lives and how they operate, affecting motivation, the ability to sleep, and other daily tasks.

You may come across different names for depression, such as unipolar depression and bipolar depression. These different types of depression have various symptoms. Unipolar depression is also known as major depressive disorder. It is when someone has been in a near-constant state of low mood for a while, whereas bipolar depression is when the person swings between low and high mood states, also known as manic episodes.

What is the cause of depression? Is it because of our biology? Or is it more to do with our psychological state of mind? The biological explanation of depression explores the physical cause of the disorder by analysing the brain and the neurotransmitters involved in vital brain functions, like most other biological explanations in psychology.

Biological Explanation, woman sat on a box depressed with her cat, StudySmarterDepression can affect people differently and has many potential causes, freepik.com/pch.vector

Biological depression

A persistent state of low mood, characterised by feelings of sadness, discontent, and hopelessness

Depression lasts for longer than a few days, usually for weeks, months or even years, and affects everyday life. The severity can differ, so some may have mild depression whilst others have severe depression.

Biological causes of depression

Biological explanations in psychology focus on the nature side of the debate when deciding what causes a disorder.

One of the main theories surrounding the biological explanation of depression is depletion. This means a reduction of specific neurotransmitters, specifically serotonin and noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine). Other biological causes for depression include abnormal brain structures and the influence of our genes (such as the inheritance of depression through your DNA if your family members have depression).

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that allow neurons to pass impulses to one another through the synaptic cleft. They facilitate (help) the communication between neurons.

Serotonin and norepinephrine have been closely linked to depression:

  • Serotonin is essential in mood modulation and feeling happy and relaxed, among other functions.

  • Norepinephrine helps you concentrate and increases your awareness/alertness, and is essential in regulating executive functions (the higher-level functions associated with our ability to problem-solve etc.).

Abnormal brain structures concern how our brains can be affected by depression, in that depression causes structural changes in the brain and how existing abnormalities result in depression (which can also relate to our genes!)

According to Pandya et al. (2012), the amygdala, hippocampus, and the dorsomedial thalamus are all brain regions associated with depression.

For instance, they found smaller hippocampal volumes in patients with depression, and those who relapse into depressive symptoms after treatment show decreased hippocampal volumes.

However, a lot of research has found multiple areas of abnormal brain structures in patients with depression. Those with anxiety, for instance, also show similar abnormalities, so we cannot definitely say all of these areas are associated fully with depression. We also can't say whether they cause depression or result from depression. This issue is known as not being able to establish cause and effect.

Most neuroscientists and psychologists agree nowadays that depression affects multiple structures in the brain.

Before we delve into the neurotransmitters a bit more, let's first establish how a nerve impulse works and the role of neurotransmitters in neuron function and communication, which will help us understand their importance.

Neurotransmitters and how nerve impulses travel

Typically, a nearby cell will trigger an action potential in your neuron (this is the nerve impulse), and this travels down the axon of your neuron towards the axon terminal and the synapse like a wave.

The synapse is the tiny space, or cleft, between one neuron and another.

Once the impulse reaches the axon terminal, the neurotransmitters are released into the synaptic cleft from the presynaptic neuron (the neuron sending the impulse) to the postsynaptic neuron (the neuron receiving the impulse). The neurotransmitter then binds to receptors on the postsynaptic neuron. Depending on the receptor it activates and binds to, the neurotransmitter can affect the postsynaptic neuron.

Biological explanation, a diagram of neurotransmitter transmission between neurons, StudySmarterNeurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that allow neurons to pass impulses, wikimedia.commons.org

After, the neurotransmitters go through reuptake and degradation, so the postsynaptic neuron does not constantly fire (if the neurotransmitters were to remain in the synaptic cleft, they would continue to bind to the receptors and activate your neuron, which usually isn't necessary).

The biological explanation of depression argues that disturbances with your neurotransmitters, most notably serotonin and norepinephrine, cause depression.

Biological explanation of depression: chemical imbalance

As we mentioned above, neurotransmitters are involved in the communication between neurons, and in depression, we are explicitly focused on serotonin and norepinephrine. That's not to say other neurotransmitters are not involved in depression; for instance, dopamine is also associated with the disorder, but for your exam, we will focus on the first two.

Overall, the theory on neurotransmitters and depression suggests that an imbalance in neurotransmitters in the brain, such as having too much or too little, can cause depression.

Serotonin and depression

The dominant theory on serotonin and depression is that low serotonin levels produce depression-like symptoms. This theory is quite old, close to 50 years, and is known as the 'serotonin hypothesis'.

Two different mechanisms in the serotonin hypothesis in depression exist.

  • First, a reduced level of serotonin in the brain lowers the availability of serotonin overall, and second, there may be some defect or abnormality in the receptors for serotonin on the postsynaptic neurons.
  • Both reduce the effects of serotonin, either by limiting the availability of serotonin so it cannot do its job correctly or by restricting the ability of your neurons to respond to the release of serotonin.

As we now know, serotonin is important in mood regulation and feelings of happiness and relaxation. It helps to ward off feelings of fear and anxiety. According to this theory, when serotonin levels are low, it cannot regulate your mood correctly or help you feel happy and relaxed.

Biological Explanation, woman thinking about various emotional states in bubbles above her head, StudySmarterSerotonin is important in mood regulation, and abnormalities affect everyday life, freepik.com/pch.vector

Certain biological treatments focus on affecting the levels of neurotransmitters.

Norepinephrine and depression

Norepinephrine is associated with our ability to concentrate and our alertness/awareness. In those with depression, low levels of norepinephrine cause lower levels of concentration, lower energy levels (which explains why those with depression have motivation issues), and reduced levels of cognitive ability.

So, studying and focusing for an exam would be hard for those with depression because their neurotransmitters aren't working as they normally should.

Experiments on mice have shown that when the systems involving norepinephrine are enhanced (by increasing norepinephrine transmission), the animals are more resistant and protected from depression-like symptoms during stressful situations (Moret & Briley, 2011).

SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors), a biological drug treatment work by preventing the reuptake of norepinephrine.

Biological treatments for depression: antidepressants and SSRIs/SNRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors/serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors)

With the theory of low serotonin levels and issues with norepinephrine causing depression or depression-like symptoms, biological treatments in the form of drugs were introduced to help people with the disorder. These are known as antidepressants, and examples include SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors).

SSRIs work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain by blocking serotonin from reuptake. Blocking the reuptake means serotonin can remain in the synaptic cleft for longer, and more serotonin is available in the synaptic cleft overall.

Similarly, SNRIs work in the same way, except both serotonin and norepinephrine are affected.

Research into SSRIs and SNRIs has shown that they effectively treat depression. However, many studies suggest that they are most effective when used alongside psychological treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This shows there is some proof and validity to the biological explanation of depression, as treating it biologically has shown an effect! Depression, overall, is biologically treatable.

Viable treatment options are also helpful for the patients, although there are some side effects (such as nausea and weight gain) that we cannot ignore.

A lot of new research suggests that low serotonin levels explain depression are too simplistic. Other findings have linked high serotonin levels with depression, so the cause of depression is not as clear-cut as research once thought.

Evaluation of the biological explanation of depression

As with all biological explanations, the biological explanation of depression has issues with multiple things. Most notably, these are issues with:

  • Reductionism: the biological explanation reduces the disorder to a purely physical perspective and ignores other important psychological factors in explaining and treating the disorder.

  • Being too simplistic

  • Conflicting evidence/multiple explanations: as we mentioned above, low serotonin levels were the leading theory behind depression for a long time; however, more recent research suggests this is not the case, and this theory is too simplistic.


Biological Explanation of Depression - Key takeaways

  • Depression is a mood disorder that causes people to feel unhappy and discontent. They may feel unmotivated and have periods of extreme sadness and negativity.
  • One of the main theories surrounding the biological explanation of depression is the depletion of or abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, specifically the neurotransmitters serotonin and noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine).
  • Other biological explanations for depression include abnormal brain structures and the influence of our genes (such as the inheritance of depression through your DNA if your family members have depression).

    Abnormal brain structures include the amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus. For instance, they found smaller hippocampal volumes in patients with depression.

  • Treatments for depression have been developed using biological explanations, such as antidepressants (SSRIs and SNRIs) which have proven effective; however, they are often more effective when used with psychological treatments, such as CBT.

  • The biological explanation has issues with reductionism, being too simplistic, and conflicting evidence.

Frequently Asked Questions about Biological Explanation of Depression

The biological explanation of depression focuses on the potential physiological origins of the disorder. It suggests imbalances within the brain may cause depression. This can be due to abnormal levels of neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and norepinephrine), abnormal brain structures, or the influence of our genes. 

The biological causes of depression include:

  • Depletion/lower levels of neurotransmitters, specifically serotonin and noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine). 
  • Abnormal brain structures
  • Influence of our genes (such as the inheritance of depression through your DNA, meaning if your family members have depression).  

Arguments for both origins of depression, as evidence exists for biological explanations for depression (neurotransmitter imbalances, abnormal brain structures, etc.) and psychological explanations for depression (Beck's negative triad, social environment, and upbringing). Both also offer methods of treatment proven to be effective; biological treatments include SSRIs and SNRIs, and psychological therapies include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 

Although we cannot say for sure that these neurotransmitters cause depression, we can suggest that they are linked to depression. Neurotransmitters that have been associated with depression include serotonin, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and dopamine. 

Final Biological Explanation of Depression Quiz

Question

What is depression?

Show answer

Answer

Depression is a mood disorder that causes people to feel unhappy and discontent. They may feel unmotivated and have periods of extreme sadness and negativity. It interferes with their daily lives and how they operate, affecting motivation, the ability to sleep, as well as other daily tasks.  

Show question

Question

What is unipolar depression?

Show answer

Answer

Unipolar depression is also known as major depressive disorder and is when someone has been in a near-constant state of low mood for a while. People with unipolar depression have low moods, feel less pleasure from doing activities they once enjoyed, may gain or lose weight, and struggle to sleep.

Show question

Question

What are the biological explanations for depression?

Show answer

Answer

  • Imbalances in neurotransmitter levels
  • Abnormal brain structures
  • Influence of our genes

Show question

Question

What are neurotransmitters?

Show answer

Answer

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that allow neurons to pass impulses to one another through the synaptic cleft. They facilitate (help) the communication between neurons. 

Show question

Question

What two neurotransmitters are most involved in depression?

Show answer

Answer

Serotonin and norepinephrine. 

Show question

Question

What are some of the abnormal brain structures linked to depression?

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Answer

The amygdala, hippocampus, and the dorsomedial thalamus are all brain regions associated with depression.  

Show question

Question

Smaller hippocampal volumes have been found in patients with depression, true or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, true or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

The theory on neurotransmitters and depression suggests that an ________ in neurotransmitters in the brain, such as having too much or too little, can cause depression.  

Show answer

Answer

imbalance

Show question

Question

What is the serotonin hypothesis in depression?

Show answer

Answer

The serotonin hypothesis in depression is that low levels of serotonin produce depression-like symptoms.

Show question

Question

What are the two different mechanisms in the serotonin hypothesis in depression?

Show answer

Answer

First, there is a reduced level of serotonin within the brain which lowers the availability of serotonin overall, and second, there may be some defect or abnormality in the receptors for serotonin on the postsynaptic neurons. 

Show question

Question

What is norepinephrine associated with?

Show answer

Answer

Norepinephrine is associated with our ability to concentrate and our alertness/awareness, and is important in regulating executive functions.

Show question

Question

What is the role of serotonin?

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Answer

Serotonin is important in mood modulation and feeling happy and relaxed, amongst other essential functions. It helps to ward off feelings of fear and anxiety. 

Show question

Question

What do SSRI and SNRI stand for?

Show answer

Answer

SSRIs stand for Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors 


SNRIs stand for Serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors 

Show question

Question

Are SSRIs and SNRIs effective in treating depression?

Show answer

Answer

Yes, research supports their use and effectiveness, however, they are more effective when used in conjunction with psychological treatments, such as CBT. 

Show question

Question

What are some issues with the biological explanation of depression?

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Answer

  • Reductionism
  • Simplistic
  • Conflicting/outdated research and evidence

Show question

Question

Low levels of norepinephrine cause _________, which may explain the symptoms of depression.

Show answer

Answer

lower levels of concentration, lower levels of energy and reduced levels of cognitive ability

Show question

Question

What are neurotransmitters released into to transmit a nerve impulse from one neuron to another?

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Answer

The synaptic cleft. 

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