How Does Depression Affect the Brain?

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Around the world, there are more than 264 million people that suffer from depression. Depression can make it difficult for individuals to carry on with daily activities and is a leading cause of disability worldwide.

Most people know that depression can leave someone feeling sad, hopeless, tired, and uninterested in things they once loved. However, they might not realize that depression can have a lasting effect on the brain, the impact of which can sometimes reverberate long after a depressive episode has ended.

How does depression affect the brain?

Let’s take a look at what you need to know.

How Does Depression Affect the Brain Physically?

Many people might not realize that depression can change the physical brain and affect a person psychologically. These include brain inflammation, shrinkage, connective and structural changes, and oxygen restriction.

Brain Inflammation

How does long-term depression affect the brain? According to some studies, it appears that the longer a person is depressed, the more inflammation can build up.

Researchers believe that there is a connection between inflammation and depression. It’s unclear, though, whether depression causes inflammation or the other way around.

Numerous complications can arise from brain inflammation because it can cause the death of brain cells.

Excess dying brain cells can lead to:

  • Decreased neurotransmitter function
  • Shrinkage
  • Reduced neuroplasticity, or the ability for a person’s brain to change as they get older

These complications can lead to issues with memory, learning, mood, and brain development.

Brain Shrinkage

It appears that depression can decrease the size of certain regions in the brain. However, there is an ongoing debate over which brain regions get smaller due to depression and to what extent they shrink.

The current understanding is that the following parts of the brain can potentially shrink as a result of depression:

  • Frontal
  • Prefrontal cortices
  • Hippocampus
  • Thalamus

The length and severity of depressive episodes link to how much different regions of the brain decrease in size.

Connective and Structural Changes

When a person experiences depression, it can also cause connective and structural changes to the brain.

Some connective and structural changes include:

  • Affecting attention and executive function by reducing the functionality of the prefrontal cortex
  • Causing memory impairment by reducing the functionality of the hippocampus
  • Affecting emotional regulation and mood by reducing the functionality of the amygdala

How does untreated depression affect the brain? Longer-lasting depression potentially leads to persisting dysfunction in memory, mood, attention, executive function, and emotional regulation.

Oxygen Restriction

Evidence also suggests that there is a link between depression and reduced oxygen in the body. When the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen, it can lead to inflammation, brain cell injury, and brain cell death.

How Does Depression Affect the Brain’s Cognitive Abilities?

Depression doesn’t just leave people feeling sad or hopeless, but it can also get in the way of your ability to think. It is believed that a reduction or interruption of the brain’s chemical messengers might cause depression, which can also impair cognitive abilities.


Memory loss is a relatively common symptom of depression. A study from 2013 found that people with depression had difficulty identifying objects that were similar or identical to things they had seen moments before. Another study from 2015 suggested that short-term memory loss might be a result of depression in some cases.


It isn’t uncommon for people who suffer from depression to have a co-occurring mental health disorder, such as attention deficit disorder. People with depression are also more likely to have issues with attention. Researchers don’t exactly know why people with depression are more likely to have attention problems. They do know, however, that they are correlated.

There can also be cognitive side effects to antidepressant medications. It is a good idea to talk to your doctor if you notice a sudden onset of attention issues. If antidepressants don’t work for you, you might consider Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, a non-drug treatment with no side effects.

Decision Making

Even minor decisions can become difficult to make when you have depression. Things like what to do next or where to go to dinner can lead to agonizing indecision. Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy is a tool to help patients combat this issue.

Executive Function

When you have executive function impairment, it can interrupt your ability to do simple tasks. Things like remembering to return a phone call or paying bills can become incredibly difficult.

Your executive function is in charge of getting things done like:

  • Managing time
  • Remembering important details
  • Planning and organizing
  • Shifting focus

Luckily, there are behavioral approaches and educational strategies that can help improve their executive function.

Are Antidepressants Not Working For You?

Now that you have a better understanding of how depression affects your brain, you’re probably wondering what you can do about it.

Depression is a severe mental health condition that can impact every aspect of your life. It can affect everything from your job or school to your relationship to your hobbies.

Many people opt to take medication to help reduce their depressive symptoms. However, others try to avoid potentially harmful side effects of these prescription drugs or have found the medication unhelpful.

If this is the case for you, you might consider Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) — a non-medication treatment for depression.

It is an FDA-cleared non-drug depression treatment that is non-invasive and free of side effects. So far, over one million treatments have been administered, resulting in long-lasting symptom relief, and covered by most insurance.

If you or a loved one are interested in whether or not TMS is right for you? If so, contact us today to book an appointment!