Depression is generally regarded as a mental illness, but could its roots actually be in the body? New research from the University of California suggests that when our bodies are subjected to illnesses and infections a set of proteins called cytokines kick in, which trigger us to withdraw so that we can recover and not infect others.
Clinical psychologist Dr George Slavich, who undertook the research, says that while we typically think about depression as just a disorder of negative thoughts or emotions, new research suggests that it has an ‘immunological basis’.
‘The biological roots of depression go very deep into our bodies, and the nature of those biological roots actually connects depression with lots of other disorders that tend to frequently co-occur with depression,’ says Dr Slavich, the director of the University of California’s Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.
‘These physical ailments include things like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and even neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.’
Dr Slavich says that our framework for treating depression as a mental illness is not necessarily misleading, but that it limits our understanding of the disorder.
‘Depression also involves psychological aspects to it. But I think our tendency both as clinicians and as just general lay people who have all experienced some type of minor depression or major depression in our lives, is to look at the emotional aspects.’
‘We cannot measure the physical aspects, and so we often don’t give them as much credit as they deserve.’
Dr Slavich says the declining price of technology used for medical research is helping more laboratories probe the secrects of a condition that afflicts millions worldwide.
‘It used to be very difficult to understand what the depressed brain, or what the depressed body, is doing,’ he says
‘We can now use brain imaging technique, we can take blood samples to look at how the immune system is operating, and how lots of different processes in the brain and the body are operating and how those processes might be different during depression versus when you’re not in a depressive episode.’
This article first appeared in RN Breakfast 7 January 2015.