In the category of "studies we may not need that confirm the obvious," new research has uncovered the fact that depressed people enjoy things less than happy people do. No really! That was actually the subject of a study that someone paid for. The researchers involved in this study elevated their observations into the realm of science by observing brain activity in 31 subjects using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Each subject listened to their favorite musical compositions for three minutes while their brains were scanned, with the researchers observing the brain's response. Sure enough, the pleasure centers in the brains of happy people showed far more activity in response to the music than the dulled-out brains of the depressed people.
"Our results revealed significant responses within the areas of the brain that are associated with reward processing in healthy individuals. They also showed significant deficits in these neuro-physiological responses in recently depressed subjects compared to the healthy subjects," said study director Dr. Elizabeth Osuch of the Lawson Health Research Institute in Ontario.
Now to be fair, the study did yield interesting data revealing exactly which parts of the brain respond to pleasure and which parts stop responding when depression descends. Armed with this information, scientists can now look for ways to stimulate those non-responsive brain centers without involving the entire brain. "If we can target these areas of the brain through treatment, we have the potential to treat depression earlier, right at the source," Dr. Osuch says.
It's unclear what type of treatment Dr. Osuch has in mind, but it sounds like she might be referring to some form of targeted electro-stimulation, which certainly would be an improvement over the once disfavored but now increasingly popular practice of electro-shock therapy, which attempts to…well, actually no one really knows what it does or how it works. In shock treatment, also called electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), electrodes stimulate the brain until the body goes into convulsion. After a few such treatments, the lucky patient loses some of the gloom; the unlucky patient experiences major memory loss. Though some consider this treatment to be a form of medieval torture, others say it's the best way to go when antidepressants don't work (and as I've written before, they usually don't work). Incidentally, the concept for ECT came from an Italian psychiatrist, Ugo Cerletti, in 1938. For some reason, he was observing the barbaric act of slaughterhouses using electrocution to shock pigs into unconsciousness so that the slaughterhouse workers could slit the pigs' throats more readily. It occurred to him that the same concept could be applied to the treatment of mental illnesses in human beings (without the slitting of throats I assume). And three quarters of a century later, no one has any idea how it works -- which, of course, has never stopped it from being used. (And the medical establishment complains about alternative medicine!!!)
"[Shock therapy is] the definitive treatment for depression," says Dr. Kenneth Melman, a psychiatrist at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. "There aren't any other treatments for depression that have been found to be superior to ECT." Now that's a scary thought -- a thought that makes it seem urgent for scientists to figure out pronto how to stimulate those targeted spots only while leaving the rest of the brain alone. But then again, and thankfully, many physicians don't belong to Dr. Melman's electro-happy club. In fact, some practice another method of brain modification that has virtually no dangerous side effects.
Instead of going for pharmaceuticals or destructive procedures, patients can opt for neurofeedback, a process in which results from an EEG are broadcast visually and in sound, as patients watch and listen. In other words, patients see their own brain wave patterns dance across a screen while listening to corresponding sounds. Normal scans show a particular pattern, and so do scans of depressed people. Depressed people learn how to alter their brain wave patterns to match the patterns of more chipper people through techniques akin to meditation. So far, clinical evidence looks quite positive -- especially when patients try neurofeedback in conjunction with psychotherapy. And since neurofeedback patients actually change brain-wave patterns, they don't need to worry about slipping back into depression when they go off the treatment, as do those on drugs.
But in the case of most mild to moderate depression, machines and drugs are probably superfluous. Good nutrition and the proper use of supplements can alleviate many cases of depression, especially when sufficient exercise is thrown into the mix. Interestingly, a new study shows that weight loss by itself can lift depression, perhaps as a result of altered blood-sugar metabolism and improved hormonal balance as weight declines. I've written before about numerous supplements that can ease mood problems, and about magnets, which outperformed antidepressants in recent clinical trials.
But what about the impaired lack of music appreciation among the glum found by the researchers in the recent study? Well, as Hamlet, the world's most famous depressive, might say, "Ay, there's the rub." Numerous studies have found that music works well as an antidepressant. In fact, music has a better track record in clinical studies than drugs do. In other words, if patients in the study that we cited at the top of the blog had been allowed to listen to their favorite compositions for longer periods of time, with clinical help, instead of for the three minutes allowed in the study, they might actually have experienced a lift in mood. While they might not have enjoyed the music as much as the already-happy subjects did at the outset, by the end of the session, all indications are they too might have been whistling a happier tune.