The Neuroscience of Depression in the Brain – Emma Allen

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Depression is a multifaceted and insidious disorder, nearly as complex as the brain itself. As research continues to suggest, the onset of depression can be attributed to an interplay of the many elements that make us human—namely, our genetics, the structure and chemistry of our brains, and our lived experience. Second only, perhaps, to the confounding mechanics of anesthesia, depression is the ultimate mind-body problem; understanding how it works could unlock the mysteries of human consciousness.

Emma Allen, a visual artist, and Dr. Daisy Thompson-Lake, a clinical neuroscientist, are fascinated by the physical processes that underlie mental health conditions. Together, they created Adam, a stop-motion animation composed of nearly 1,500 photographs. The short film illuminates the neuroscience of depression while also conveying its emotive experience.

“It was challenging translating the complicated science into an emotional visual story with scenes that would flow smoothly into each other,” Allen told The Atlantic.

“One of the most complex issues we had to deal with,” added Thompson-Lake, “is that there no single neuroscientific explanation for depression…While scientists agree that there are biological and chemical changes within the brain, the actual brain chemistry is very unique to the individual—although, of course, we can see patterns when studying large numbers of patients.” As a result, Allen and Thompson-Lake attempted a visual interpretation of depression that does not rely too heavily on any one explanation.

The film’s first sequence depicts the brain’s vast network of neuronal connections. Neurons communicate via synapses, across which electrical and chemical signals are exchanged. In a depressed patient’s brain, some of these processes are inefficient or dysfunctional, as the animation illustrates. Next, we see a positron emission tomography (PET) scan of a depressed brain, demarcated by darkened areas. Finally, the animation shows activity in the hippocampus and the frontal lobe. Abnormalities in the activity of both of these areas of the brain have been implicated in depression by recent research.

For Allen, one of the main objectives in creating Adam was to help dispel the notion that depression is a character flaw. “A common misconception is that the person is at fault for feeling this way, and that to ask for help is a weakness or embarrassing,” Allen said. “But depression has a physical component that needs treating.”

“The shame surrounding mental health still exists,” Allen continued. “In fact, in the case of Kate Spade, it was reported that she was concerned about the stigma her brand might face if this were made public.”

And who, exactly, is Adam? “Daisy lost a friend to suicide,” said Allen, “so the film is named in his memory.”

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No Scientific Evidence That Probiotics Improve Anxiety Symptoms In Humans, Finds Study – David DiSalvo

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A new review and analysis of several studies has found that probiotics do not improve self-reported anxiety symptoms in humans, although there was evidence of minor improvements in rodents.

The study reviewed 36 preclinical studies in total, 14 involving humans and 22 involving rats and mice. That’s a decent-sized sampling of the research covering a variety of probiotic strains, and it turned up zero evidence that humans with self-reported anxiety symptoms benefited from taking any of them.

“Probiotics did not significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety in humans and did not differentially affect clinical and healthy human samples,” the study concluded.

One of the strains, Lactobacillus (L.) rhamnosus, did appear to reduce anxiety symptoms in rodents, but further analysis showed that effects were most pronounced only for the sickest of the specimens, and even in those animals the results weren’t dramatic.

Probiotics are one of the strongest selling nutritional products in the world, with annual US sales exceeding $3.3 billion in 2016. That market size is predicted to more than double by 2025. Clearly a large chunk of the supplement-buying public has confidence in these products, and the marketing push is only intensifying. But this study, like others turning up similar findings, suggests caution is warranted.

“I think people should wait — that’s the best takeaway here,” said lead study author Daniel J. Reis, a doctoral student of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas. “We’re in the early days of this research into probiotics. I’ve seen a lot of stories hyping probiotics as helpful for anxiety. We’re not saying they do nothing, but we have a lot to figure out before we know if they can be used therapeutically.”

Why some effects were found in rodents and not in humans isn’t clear, but the researchers noted that the differences in dosage between humans and rodents were significant.

“If you control for the weights of animals versus humans, animals are getting much larger doses of probiotics in these experiments by one or two orders of magnitude. Sometimes the doses were hundreds of times higher than we see in human studies,” said Reis in a press statment.

The researchers also noted that while this study didn’t find anxiety-reducing benefits for humans, it’s still possible that a pathway exists for certain strains to yield therapeutic effects. And they were clear that the anxiety levels among the human participants in the reviewed studies weren’t necessarily “clinically elevated.” Future research has an opportunity to delve more deeply among that expanding population.

“We see a lot of pathways between our digestive systems and our brains,” Reis said. “We see nervous system connections, the inflammation response — these microorganisms seem to be able to influence the human brain through this gut-brain axis. We wanted to know if changes to the microbiota could improve mental health. But in terms of research, it’s all at a very preliminary stage.”

And that, for the moment, is the big takeaway on probiotics – the research is still very preliminary, despite marketing claims of conclusive results. Evidence supporting the claims just isn’t there, at least not yet.

Scientific research is nearing a consensus that bacteria in our digestive systems affect our brains. The microbiome in our guts, populated by billions of bacteria, appears to play a significant role not only in our digestive health, but also our mental health. Exactly how this happens is still being worked out, with each new study turning over another proverbial rock of possibilities. Despite these advances, we don’t yet know how, or if, probiotic supplements can improve our mental health by influencing gut bacteria. The marketing of these products is far ahead of the facts, as a quick review of what we know will show.

First, a brief sampling of the latest bacteria-brain research, which includes a study that found specific hormonal exchanges enabling communication between gut bacteria and the brain. This is especially noteworthy because the hormone in question is cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone”– a well-established indicator of stress levels in humans and other mammals. The study was conducted in pigs, which share several physiological similarities with humans, and it identified a possible communication pathway between gut bacteria and the brain that uses cortisol as a channel to send “messages.” The implications of this research will take some time to unravel, but one initial takeaway is that our stress-response system may play a key role in how gut bacteria communicate with the brain.

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Another recent study suggests that gut bacteria may influence anxiety and depression. This study was conducted with mice raised in a sterile, germ-free environment devoid of bacterial influence. Researchers exposed these mice to gut bacteria and watched what happened compared to mice that were raised in a normal, germy environment.  The germ-free mice exposed to bacteria developed anxiety and depression symptoms on par with the human equivalent. The researchers identified a specific brain region influenced by the bacteria, and suspect that our early-life exposure to bacteria may predispose us one way or another to anxiety and depression later on. Again, the conclusions are speculative, but the research is exciting because it moves us a little closer to figuring out what’s going on.

More studies like these are underway and another wave is in the planning phase. So why, with all of this research, can’t we make grand claims for the promise of probiotics? After all, if we have even an inkling that gut bacteria affect our brains (and we certainly have more than an inkling at this point) then why not jump onboard the probiotic supplement express?

The reasons can be boiled down to a few big ones.

The probiotic philosophy is to blast the gut with billions of allegedly “good” bacteria, in hopes of populating out the bad ones. While re-populating the gut with good bacteria sounds plausible, there’s little scientific clarity around which gut bacteria are objectively “good” or if that qualification is even valid. Bacteria can be “good” or “bad” depending on a slew of variables. Even less clear is which bacteria influence the brain and how they’re exerting their influence.

But let’s say we could achieve perfect clarity on that point, there’s still an enormous gastric obstacle ahead. Whether you’re ingesting a probiotic with one billion or 30 billion live bacterial cultures, they still have to survive your stomach acid to do anything worthwhile. Only a couple types of bacteria have proven resistant enough to survive that peril (lactobacillus and bifidobacteria), which means almost everything else in your pricey probiotic capsule is toast.

But let’s say that problem is solved by a fantastic pill coating – what will this army of bacteria do once they arrive in your gut?  We simply don’t know enough to know for sure. Last year a review of probiotic trials in humans concluded that the research “demonstrates a lack of evidence for an impact of probiotics on fecal microbiota composition in healthy adults.” In other words, we don’t know precisely what probiotics are doing in the gut – and there’s at least a possibility that they aren’t doing much to make a difference.

Given how little we understand about what probiotics can accomplish in our guts, jumping to a further conclusion that they can improve our mental health is really reaching. That hasn’t stopped those marketing these products from making outlandish claims, but that’s standard operating procedure for a large chunk of supplement marketing.

Where actual science is concerned, we don’t yet know if probiotics can achieve the promises made for them, or what sort of probiotic formula will prove effective. We may eventually find out that probiotics need to be tailored to a given person’s microbiome like bespoke clothing. Once that’s established (if it can be established), then perhaps we’ll have a better opportunity to understand how probiotics might improve our mental health – assuming the underlying theory holds up over time.

Right now, we don’t know enough to justify the claims made for probiotic supplements. The marketing is leagues ahead of the evidence, and we’d do well to view these claims with skepticism. Perhaps one day probiotics will give our brains a boost, but we’re just not there yet.

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Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade And The Question Of Why – Henna Inam

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The question “why?” has been reverberating through my head.

This week, many of us experienced a stunned sadness. The suicides of two celebrities, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, left us wondering what happened. What did we miss?

The Bourdain and Spade suicides have opened up new questions about my assumptions about dream careers.

Bourdain and Spade had achieved significant success. They were at the top of their fields. They were engaged in work that they were passionate about.

They had fame. They had fortune.

 They had somehow figured out their unique talents and were fully expressing them to create positive impact for so many.

They had family and friends who loved them and fans who adored them.

The place they reached is the place many of us aspire to. For many of us, isn’t the dream to find our passion? To connect with our talents? To live our passions out loud? To impact others positively? To love and be loved? To find work that is not just a paycheck but fills us? Isn’t this what self-actualization is about? I imagine nirvana lives just on the other side of self-actualization. Does it?

At the height of what seemed on the outside were enviable lives well lived, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain chose to end it all.

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I am not a mental health expert. I can’t even begin to fathom what was going through their minds when they made the decision to leave. But, here are some questions that are going through my mind this week. I urge us to reflect on these questions as we go about pursuing our dream careers:

Most of us assume that we will be happy when (fill in the blank). The fill in the blank can be the next achievement, the corner office, the success of the side gig, the perfect partner. What if we will not be happy “when”?

I imagine both Bourdain and Spade experienced some sense of emptiness or despair. As we go about pursuing dreams important to us, what are the just-beneath-the-surface moments of emptiness we feel? What is the emptiness we avoid? What do we seek on the outside to fill that emptiness?

Suicide rates have increased by 25% in the last 20 years. Almost always, loved ones are surprised. Who are the people that we can reach out to help us when we feel despair? Who are the people in our lives we can reach out to, to be of help? What are the signs we need to be aware of?

There is still too much shame around mental health issues. How do we as a society and as individuals stop hiding behind masks of perfect Facebook-worthy lives? How do we acknowledge our humanity to others in a vulnerable way? How do we create the space for others to share what’s not perfect in their lives?

What is the cost to us of creating a public persona that is all about the positive? Success. Fun. Fame. Adventure. How painful and lonely must be the discord between the real experience of emptiness and the image of fullness that we feel we must display to the world.

What if our assumptions about the pursuit of the dream that will ultimately make us happy and successful are wrong? What if there is a dark underbelly of the human experience in each of us that we’re missing as we seek self-actualization? What would it be like to claim that dark underbelly? To accept that we are each flawed and that may never change? To accept that there is less within our control than we would like to accept?

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Would our dreams be different if they emerged from an acknowledgment of our imperfections and most painful emotions?

I imagine that each one of us will have different answers to these questions. I leave you with a quote from Bourdain in celebration of being curious: “That without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, moribund.”

What are the questions you have as you process the passing of Bourdain and Spade? I welcome your thoughts and reflections.

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A Few Thoughts For Entrepreneurs Wrestling With Depression – Chris Myers

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This has been a hard week for those of us who care deeply about depression and the people who wrestle with it.

Both entrepreneur/designer Kate Spade and chef/TV personality Anthony Bourdain took their own lives this week, leaving many to wonder why people who seemed to have it all would go to such lengths.

If I’ve learned anything during my entrepreneurial journey, it’s that people who have ambition, vision, and big dreams tend to suffer from what author Nassir Ghaemi calls “A first-rate madness.” The genius is often offset by battles with personal demons.

That there is a link between creativity and mental illness is known to some extent, details regarding that link are mostly unknown.

Entrepreneurs are, if nothing else, creators. They thrive on the unknown and live to create something out of nothing. With that drive, however, comes an increased risk of depression and mental illness.

While I don’t claim to know precisely what happened in these particular cases, I do know that the stresses of living a high-profile, creative, or entrepreneurial can take their toll on people, both physically and emotionally.

I want to be very clear about one thing. I don’t have all the answers. Like everyone else, I’m just trying to find my way in a complicated and challenging world.

I have, however, learned a few things along my personal entrepreneurial and creative journey that have helped me navigate challenging situations, particularly in regards to stress, anxiety, and depression.

Let’s be honest about the difference between mental illness and circumstance

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that there is a stark difference between mental illness and the shared human response to challenging circumstances with which we are forced to deal.

For so long there was a stigma associated with mental illness, and people were afraid to entertain the idea that they might be suffering from its effects. Fortunately, this stigma is starting to give way to a more honest and understanding view of the matter. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or not, you have to ask yourself “Have I suffered from panic, anxiety, or depression my whole life, or is this something new?”

If you find that your feelings and sufferings are part of a larger pattern, please don’t be afraid to talk to a medical professional.

In many cases, anxiety and other symptoms are biological. No matter what you try to do, or how you try to cope, you won’t be able to run away from the underlying biological problem. There are, fortunately, solutions and treatments out there that can help.

If what you’re experiencing is relatively new for you, there’s a reasonable chance that it is mostly circumstantial. This is where I can offer some insight, having dealt with this type of emotional stress firsthand.

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Keep things in perspective

A few years ago, Business Insider published a great article about the depression epidemic in the startup community. According to the article, only 7% of the general population report suffering from depression, but a whopping 30% of founders report dealing with its effects.

That statistic is staggering but entirely believable.

Entrepreneurship is an intensely personal journey, and it’s incredibly difficult to separate your identity from the business that you’re trying to create. Soon, business setbacks (of which there are many) seem like personal setbacks, and depression can quickly take root.

The key is always to strive to keep things in perspective. Life, like business, is a journey full of ups and downs.

When talking to entrepreneurs and other creatives going through tough times, I often encourage them to think back to high school. For most of us, there were moments in our high school lives that seemed to be monumentally crucial that in retrospect seem childish.

At the time, of course, the pain and anxiety that you experienced were real and raw. However, the more distance you gain from the situation, the less painful it becomes.

While the problems that you’re facing right here and right now may seem insurmountable, it’s important to realize these too will pass and fade in time.

Entrepreneurs have to accept the fact that the odds are stacked against their success. Most new business ventures fail, and even those that are eventually successful take a long time to get off the ground.

Setbacks will outnumber successes, and there’s a good chance that most days will be stressful. That’s the game we chose to play and the ability to embrace these realities is what makes us entrepreneurs.

Still, when challenges pile up, it’s easy to feel like the world is ending and that we’re failures. I recently had lunch with a good friend who was in the process of shuttering his third startup in seven years.

During our conversation, I reminded him that in his brief career to date, he’s accomplished more than the vast majority of people do in decades.

His pedigree and experience put him in the top one percent of people in his age group, and, as a result, his opportunities are vast. Sure, the latest venture didn’t work out, but he can and will live to fight another day.

Wherever you’re at this point in your life, there is an excellent chance that your current endeavor will not be your last. In fact, many of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world hit their stride on the second or third attempt.

Consider the case of Mark Cuban. Before he struck it big by selling his business to Yahoo, Cuban had a string of failures.  After failing as a cook, carpenter, and even a waiter he remarked, “I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you failed. You only have to be right once. I tried to sell powdered milk. I was an idiot lots of times, and I learned from them all.”

The lesson here is that there are second (and third and fourth) acts in life, and it’s important to remember that whenever you encounter failure.

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Don’t be afraid to get help

I’m fortunate in the sense that I have a fantastic support network I can call on when I need help. My family and friends are always there when I need them, whether it’s to listen to my struggles or to lend a hand.

Not everyone is as lucky. Entrepreneurs need to be able to reach out and get help when they need it. This can be difficult in a world where everyone feels the need to be “crushing it” all the time. Asking for help can be seen as a sign of weakness, which leads to people merely keeping their difficulties to themselves.

We in the entrepreneurial and creative communities need to change this mentality. People should feel free to get help without the fear of judgment, and it’s going to take a few strong influencers to initiate the change.

I know a few people in the industry who care about this deeply, including Structure Capital (a team of high-profile venture investors based out of San Francisco), but more are needed. There are good people out there who want to help. It’s just a matter of having the courage to reach out.

There will be bumps, setbacks, and even catastrophic failures on any worthwhile journey, but remember that you’re not alone. Keep your challenges in perspective and live to fight another day.

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Living with Anxiety and Depression

*I am honored that Author Renee Antonia has provided a guest post while on her WOW: Women on Writing Book tour. She will talk about her experience with anxiety and depression, which inspired her book I’m Not Okay. .* Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. By clicking on the link provided and purchasing the book mentioned in […]

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