Brain Structure That Tracks Negative Events Backfires in Depression

Summary: In depressed people, the habenula functions abnormally, a new study reports.

Source: UCL.

A region of the brain that responds to bad experiences has the opposite reaction to expectations of aversive events in people with depression compared to healthy adults.

The study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, found that the habenula, a pea-sized region of the brain, functions abnormally in depression. The same team previously showed that the habenula was activated in healthy volunteers when they expected to receive an electric shock.

“A prominent theory has suggested that a hyperactive habenula drives symptoms in people with depression: we set out to test that hypothesis” says senior author Professor Jonathan Roiser (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience). “Surprisingly, we saw the exact opposite of what we predicted. In people with depression, habenula activity actually decreased when they thought they would get a shock. This shows that in depressed people the habenula reacts in a fundamentally different way. Although we still don’t know how or why this happens, it’s clear that the theory needs a rethink.”

The researchers scanned the brains of 25 people with depression and 25 never-depressed individuals using high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The participants were shown a sequence of abstract pictures while they lay inside the scanner. Over time they learned that different pictures were associated with a chance of different outcomes – either good or bad. Images predicting electric shocks were found to cause increased habenula activation in healthy volunteers, but decreased activation in depressed people.

There were no differences in average habenula size between people with depression and healthy volunteers. However, people with smaller habenulae, in both groups, were found to have more symptoms of anhedonia, a loss of interest or pleasure in life.

Image shows the location of the habenula in the brain.
There were no differences in average habenula size between people with depression and healthy volunteers. However, people with smaller habenulae, in both groups, were found to have more symptoms of anhedonia, a loss of interest or pleasure in life. image is credited to D4 Clinic.

“The habenula’s role in depression is clearly much more complex than previously thought,” explains lead author Dr. Rebecca Lawson (UCL Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging). “From this experimental fMRI study we can draw conclusions about the effects of anticipated shocks on habenula activation in depressed individuals compared with healthy volunteers. We can only speculate as to how this deactivation is linked to symptoms, but it could be that this ancient part of the brain actually plays a protective role against depression. Animal experiments have shown that stimulating the habenula leads to avoidance, and it is possible that this occurs for mental as well as physical negative events. So one possible explanation is that the habenula may help us to avoid dwelling on unpleasant thoughts or memories, and when this is disrupted you get the excessive negative focus that is common in depression.”

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: The study was funded by UK Medical Research Council.

Source: Harry Dayantis – UCL
Image Source: This image is credited to D4 Clinic.
Original Research: The study will appear in Molecular Psychiatry.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]UCL. “Brain Structure That Tracks Negative Events Backfires in Depression.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 31 May 2016.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]UCL. (2016, May 31). Brain Structure That Tracks Negative Events Backfires in Depression. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved May 31, 2016 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]UCL. “Brain Structure That Tracks Negative Events Backfires in Depression.” (accessed May 31, 2016).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]

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  1. It doesnt take my depression away either Dan, but it does take the edge off. A bottle of jack isn’t going to do anything except make your depression way worse, its a depressant. Not to mention the stupid things alcohol makes people do. Shock doesn’t work either, i am not sure they even do that anymore, its barbaric. Our temples aren’t made to be electro shocked into oblivion. Might as well just go get a lobotomy. But hey , those didn’t work either. Were stuck, its just that simple, i choose not to allow it to completely destroy me or my life . And i have had a real humdinger of a life let me tell you and it has not been good. Every second of my life is a struggle. but right now im choosing not to be its victim and be a survivor thats surviving instead and that takes a tremendous amount of work and energy every blessed day of my life.And the pills they try and shove down our throats? worthless. its all a game a sham its all about money. When i smoke weed, I am more successful in convincing myself that i need to get up, move, do something, i can see myself in a more positive perspective instead of the constant negative one my brain is constantly trying to serve me when i am not medicating. Its a nice break if not anything else. I can find a small degree of peace when i smoke. It calms me faster than any drug on the market and its not addictive. ive overdosed 3 times on man made drugs. I have no fear of that with weed. Weeds not for everyone as you said its not for you but Dan, do yourself a favor. Stay as far away from alcohol as you can. Its poison to people like us.

  2. Ok, I can easily explain this. We just don’t f*cking care. Will you give me an eletric shock? Ok, life is meaning less anyway.

    1. You want electric shock? are you crazy? lol no pun intended…..that crap does not work my friend. smoke pot instead, it does wonders

    2. You got it right, we just couldn’t give half a fudgeball so shock away…and no Sheryl, smoking pot isn’t the miracle cure for all. Been there, done that, and overall it didn’t make my depression any better, just made me think deeper about the bullshit world we live in. I’d sooner have a bottle of Jack.

  3. I think what you have found in this research is outstanding and a good starting point. However, you do not mention as to whether or not now that you have this information if there is a way to correct this. I suffer from major depressive disorder anxiety and ptsd. I can’t stand to be myself or in my body anymore. Over 40+ years of this depression is more than i can bare. Have you found a way to help yet?

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