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The Link Between Mental Health Disorders and Brain Damage

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Our brain is very powerful, it helps us deal with the daily stresses of life and allows us to realize our abilities, memorize new skills, build relationships, think logically, and behave appropriately. In fact, every facet of our lives is extremely connected with our brain. When we experience significant disturbances in our brain or mental well-being, it can potentially lead to mental disorders.  

From daily stress to loneliness to trauma, multiple factors can cause mental disorders, and there are ways you can tackle these causes. But here we are not discussing that; instead, we’ll try to answer a common yet important question, “Does mental health disorders cause brain damage?”. Let’s understand.

How Depression Affects the Brain  

When we think of depression, the initial impressions that come to our mind are a prolonged feeling of sadness, loss of energy, lack of interest, insomnia, etc. But its impact on the brain is way deeper than this. The below mentioned are some of the severe impacts of depression on the brain.   

Brain Shrinkage  

A study and a follow-up review of the study showed that depression can shrink specific parts of the brain. These regions are the Hippocampus, Thamalus, Amygdala, and prefrontal cortices, which support memory, learning, cognitive functions, navigation, emotions, etc. in the brain.  

Brain Size in Depression and Anxiety  

Another review study conducted in 2020 suggests that the Amygdala, a part of the brain that supports memory and our fight-or-flight response, increases its size due to the presence of depression and anxiety. This suggests that the existence of these two mental conditions brings different outcomes, unlike other forms of depression.  

Inflammation in the Brain  

Translocator protein total distribution volume (TSPO VT) serves as an indicator of brain inflammation. A study in 2018 showed that people who didn’t take any treatment for major depressive disorder for 10 years had 29-33% more TSPO VT) in comparison to people who went untreated for less time. However, it is still not obvious whether depression causes inflammation in the brain or the other way around.   

Variances in Brain Structure  

Our brain and spinal cord depend on neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine to send communications to cells and neurons. According to a 2018 study, people with anxiety and depression have low levels of said neurotransmitters. A different study also found that recovering from depression can reverse these imbalances in the brain.  

Effects of Oxygen Deprivation on the Brain  

Depression might have a connection to low oxygen levels in our bodies. Scientific experiments in rats showed that when oxygen levels drop, bodies produce a specific protein that could be linked to depression-like behaviors. However, scientists are still studying its effects on humans.   

Another theory suggests that people with sleep problems like sleep apnea have a higher chance of being depressed.

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Are the changes permanent?  

Currently, there are no specific treatments that can cure depression, but the treatments can minimize the symptoms of depression. In an interesting animal-based research, it has been found that brain shrinkage in depression is likely due to weakened dendrites and not brain cells. These findings suggest it may be possible to reverse depression. However, further research, especially human-based, is needed before a solid conclusion.  

Bipolar Disorder and Brain Damage: What We Know  

Bipolar disorder can impact and cause numerous changes in many parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, which oversees cognitive functions like understanding, problem-solving, etc. The subcortical structure area is where our brain processes functions like memory, emotions, hormone production, etc. The medial temporal structure is another part of the brain that is susceptible to grey and white matter, which can cause memory loss in people with bipolar disorder.  

While bipolar disorder is not completely understood and is still a field of research, there are a few things that we know about it, and these are:-  

The Progressive Nature of Damage  

Research suggests bipolar disorder worsens over time, with repeated episodes potentially damaging brain structure and function. This "progressive nature" could lead to more frequent and severe episodes, cognitive decline, and difficulty functioning.  

What happens in the brain of someone with bipolar disorder?  

Bipolar disorder causes many structural and functional changes in the brain of individuals. These changes include imbalances in neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which affect mood swings and reduce the volume of several parts of the brain. All these changes in the brain influence emotion, thinking, cognitive function, and sleep.  

Key neurotransmitters affected by bipolar disorder  

Earlier in the article, we discussed that bipolar disorder causes imbalances in some of the key neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters send messages to the brain cells and any disruptions to these messengers can contribute to symptoms of bipolar disorder. Here are a few symptoms that may occur due to changes in key chemical messengers.  

Symptoms of high norepinephrine levels  

People with bipolar disorder experience fluctuations in norepinephrine (high and low), and these fluctuations are associated with periods of mania and depression. High levels during mania can lead to hyperactivity, euphoria, racing thoughts, and risky behaviors. Conversely, low levels of depression can cause fatigue, sadness, loss of interest, and difficulty concentrating.  

Symptoms of low serotonin levels  

In some people, the disorder causes low serotonin levels, which is associated with symptoms like depressed mood, low energy, suicidal thoughts, change in appetite, sleep problems, lack of interest, pessimism, memory issues, delusional thoughts, self-doubt, etc. 

Can Bipolar Disorder Cause Brain Damage?  

While bipolar disorder remains a field that needs so much understanding yet, many studies indicate bipolar disorder can cause brain damage. Studies have also found that grey matter, which is the outermost layer of the brain, gets severely impacted in people with bipolar disorder. A 2017 study compared brain scans of both healthy individuals and people with bipolar disorder and found deceased gray matter thickness in the temporal, parietal, and frontal lobes in people with the disorder.  

Comparing the Effects: Depression vs. Bipolar Disorder  

While depression and bipolar disorder may seem similar with symptoms like prolonged sadness and low mood, they differ significantly. Depression is characterized by extended periods of fatigue, mood swings, loss of interest, etc. On the other hand, bipolar disorder has similar symptoms but with extreme highs (mania or hypomania).  

Moreover, both conditions have various risk factors. For example, depression might influenced by life stressors, lifestyle, or medical conditions. The exact cause of bipolar is not yet known, though genetics may play a role.  

Bipolar Disorder Treatment  

Currently, there is no treatment available that cures bipolar disorder. However, you can manage the symptoms and the disorder effectively using a combination of medication, lifestyle change, and psychotherapy.  

Under medication, professionals may prescribe various drugs such as mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and anticonvulsants to prevent episodes of mania and depression. Lifestyle changes include a balanced diet, regular exercise, mindfulness, sleep hygiene, minding daily routine, etc., to improve depressive symptoms and functioning. Finally, psychotherapy, such as CBT, interpersonal, social rhythm therapy, etc., can help with coping strategies, improve personal relationships, etc.  

How Bipolar Disorder Medication Can Affect the Brain's Grey Matter  

Mood, memory, learning, and impulse control are some of the areas that get affected by reduced grey matter thickness. Some medications have shown promising results in reversing the decreasing size of grey matter and at the same time, some medications such as anticonvulsants and antipsychotics are linked to opposite results.  

Lithium is one of the prescribed medications given to people with the disorder, and it has shown positive results in increasing the grey matter volume in the right subgenual and orbitofrontal cortex. However, more studies are required to clarify it further.  

The Role of Therapy and Support Networks  

By and large, therapies and support networks work wonders for mental health disorders, including bipolar disorder. While medication is crucial, therapy and support networks hold paramount importance in managing bipolar disorder. Therapy helps individuals learn coping strategies, identify symptoms and triggers, and teach them how to face the challenges of bipolar disorder. On the other hand, support networks provide emotional support and help individuals in developing resilience.  

Other Medications  

Antipsychotics and anticonvulsants are two of the other medications prescribed by mental health experts for bipolar disorder. These medications serve as mood stabilizers and control episodes of mania. However, these medications have not scientifically demonstrated effectiveness in increasing the grey matter volume and are linked to a decreased gray matter thickness.  

Navigating a Path to Recovery with Cadabams  

Experiencing mental health challenges like depression and bipolar disorder can be overwhelming. At Cadabams,  we understand this and offer the best available treatments and a supportive environment to guide you towards recovery. Our all-around approach to mental health care incorporates evidence-based therapies, medication management, and personalized treatment to meet every unique requirement.  

Whether you are facing the extreme effects of depression or going through the highs and lows of bipolar disorder, Cadabams is here to support you in every possible way. So, start your mental health journey with Cadabams for a holistic recovery program.  

If you are searching for a solution to your problem, Cadabam’s Rehabilitation Centre can help you with its team of specialized experts. We have been helping thousands of people live healthier and happier lives for 30+ years. We leverage evidence-based approaches and holistic treatment methods to help individuals effectively manage their Mental Health Disorders. Get in touch with us today. You can call us at +91 96111 94949. 

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1. What does bipolar disorder do to the brain?  

Bipolar disorder affects the brain's structure and function, leading to imbalances in neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. These changes influence mood swings and can result in reduced volume in certain brain regions. It's a complex condition that requires personalized treatment to manage symptoms and promote stability.  

2. Does depression cause brain damage?  

Research suggests that depression can lead to brain changes, including shrinkage in certain areas and alterations in neurotransmitter levels. While the extent and reversibility of these changes remain under study, early intervention and treatment can mitigate potential long-term effects on the brain.  

3. Can mental disorders cause brain damage?  

Yes, certain mental disorders, like depression and bipolar disorder, can potentially lead to changes in brain structure and function. Studies suggest that prolonged untreated mental illness may contribute to brain shrinkage and affect neurotransmitter levels, impacting cognitive function and emotional regulation.  

4. What are the effects of mental health on the brain?  

Mental health significantly impacts the brain's structure and function. Conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD can alter brain chemistry, affecting mood regulation and cognitive processes. Chronic stress can shrink the hippocampus, impairing memory.  

5. How does brain injury impact mental health?  

Brain injury can profoundly affect mental health by causing cognitive impairments, mood disorders, and personality changes. Common consequences include depression, anxiety, impulsivity, and difficulty with memory and concentration. The severity and location of the injury determine the extent of these effects, which can be long-lasting and require specialized treatment and support. 

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