Neuroscientist Alex Korb on reversing depression

From Nine To Noon, 10:11 am on 20 September 2016
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Photo: 123.rf

Often we hear about a “downward spiral into depression”, but a new book examines how to train the brain to do the reverse.

In his new book The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb unpicks the inner workings of the brain and its chemistry.

There is no difference between the brains of those who suffer depression or from anyone else and how the thinking and feeling circuits can be reprogrammed, he says.

It was his own experience with depression that led Dr Korb to focus his studies on finding out more about its progression.

Depression is “an issue with the thinking and the feeling circuits getting out of whack and miscommunicating,” he says.

“Normal sadness is very different from depression, because depression includes a lot more than simple sadness. People who are depressed don’t always feel sad, they feel a sense of emptiness where a feeling should be.”

Depression stems from a problem with the chemistry in the frontal lobe of the brain, he says. One of its main functions is to regulate the emotional limbic system.

“You can’t necessarily control your automatic reaction to something, but your pre-frontal cortex should be able to rationalise and understand its context and help calm you down or cheer you up, or anything to regulate the random emotional activity in the limbic system.

“Something in depression is disrupted about that communication, such that there's a loss of an ability to regulate those emotions.”

There are dozens of interventions that can have a positive impact on the mental state, Dr Korb says.

“The key is to just start really small, and that is just one aspect of the upward spiral. Because the brain is a complex dynamic system with all of these feedback loops, all of these small changes can have large effects.”

A few of the changes he suggests are exposing yourself to sunlight, looking for more things to be grateful for, doing more exercise, spending more time with friends and noticing negative thoughts.

“If you can just notice it once you're starting that downward spiral you can enact some of these life changes that will set you on a different course.

“Even just recognising your negative emotions can reduce their impact. You can say, I am feeling a little bit down today, or I am feeling anxious. Those thoughts trigger the pre-frontal cortex and can actually help reduce the negative activation in the amygdala and limbic region.”