It’s estimated that 350 million people throughout the world are affected by some form of depression. The mental health disorder is characterized by a persistently depressed mood and a general sense of apathy; it seems that you can now add ‘premature aging’ to the list of depression side effects, as Yale scientists think they have uncovered a link between synapses in the brain and cognitive aging.
The belief revolves around the function synapses perform. Brain cells communication by firing messages along these connections; good cognition is linked to more and stronger synapses, while cognitive impairment is shown to cause synapses to gradually shrink and die off. In the past, scientists could only count synapses in brain tissue after the patient had died. Now, researchers at Yale have developed a new technique to scan the brains of people, and have discovered that patients with depression had a lower density of synapses than healthy people of the same age.
In layman’s terms, the more severe the depression symptoms (such as problems with attention or loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities), the lower the density of synapses. Yale neuroscientist Irina Esterlis was studying groups of all ages on a theory that early damage can build up. Unfortunately, proving that depression worsens and speeds up cognitive decline would require an extensive research program that spanned across subjects’ lifetimes, but Esterlis is willing to try — a larger study is in the works.
Although there are no medications that specifically target underlying synapse damage, brain experts hope that the connection she’s made will urge depressed people to seek out psychotherapy services or counseling before they accumulate too much damage and end up suffering for years.
“If your mood isn’t enough to make you go and get treated, then hopefully your cognition is,” said Dr. Mary Sano, who directs the Mount Sinai Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in New York, though she wasn’t involved in the new research.
We may be years off from proving these connections, but with cognitive function hanging in the balance — including increased chances of developing Alzheimer’s — it isn’t a bad idea to seek professional help as soon as possible.