Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky On Depression

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Published on May 25, 2014
(edited for improved sound: noise and stereo issues, and miscellaneous parts taken out)

Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky, posits that depression is the most damaging disease that you can experience. Right now it is the number four cause of disability in the US and it is becoming more common. Sapolsky states that depression is as real of a biological disease as is diabetes.


Neurotransmitters

The neurotransmitter serotonin is involved in regulating many important physiological (body-oriented) functions, including sleep, aggression, eating, sexual behavior, and mood. Serotonin is produced by serotonergic neurons. Current research suggests that a decrease in the production of serotonin by these neurons can cause depression in some people, and more specifically, a mood state that can cause some people to feel suicidal.

In the 1960s, the “catecholamine hypothesis” was a popular explanation for why people developed depression. This hypothesis suggested that a deficiency of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) in certain areas of the brain was responsible for creating depressed mood. More recent research suggests that there is indeed a subset of depressed people who have low levels of norepinephrine. For example, autopsy studies show that people who have experienced multiple depressive episodes have fewer norepinephrinergic neurons than people who have no depressive history. However, research results also tell us that not all people experience mood changes in response to decreased norepinephrine levels. Some people who are depressed actually show hyperactivity within the neurons that produce norepinephrine. More current studies suggest that in some people, low levels of serotonin trigger a drop in norepinephrine levels, which then leads to depression.

Another line of research has investigated linkages between stress, depression, and norepinephrine. Norepinephrine helps our bodies to recognize and respond to stressful situations. Researchers suggest that people who are vulnerable to depression may have a norepinephrinergic system that doesn’t handle the effects of stress very efficiently.

The neurotransmitter dopamine is also linked to depression. Dopamine plays an important role in regulating our drive to seek out rewards, as well as our ability to obtain a sense of pleasure. Low dopamine levels may in part explain why depressed people don’t derive the same sense of pleasure out of activities or people that they did before becoming depressed.

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