A link between brain injuries and depression

The connection between brain injuries and depression is widely accepted, although not fully understood.

Doctors have long known that some traumatic brain injuries—even concussions—can lead to severe depression and anxiety.

But the connection between brain injuries and depression hasn’t been clearly defined.

Now, researchers have found a clue: damaged neural signal carriers, deep inside the brain.

Studying White Matter in Brain Injury Patients

“White matter” —or axons—is the part of the brain cell that passes signals to another cell.

White matter is not visible on a conventional MRI. That’s how many traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are diagnosed.

A research team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center looked at brain scans of patients diagnosed with a mild TBI.

Most patients had sustained brain injuries from sports or motor vehicle accidents crashes.

In the study group of 74 TBI patients:

  • 45 patients reported depression, anxiety, or both.
  • 29 reported no post-TBI psychiatric problems.
White matter- MRI-brain injuries and depression-ColuccioLaw-Seattle
*This image of the white matter in a human brain was taken by MRI using diffusion tensor imaging.

This group of TBI patients was evaluated using “diffusion tensor imaging.” Unlike traditional MRI, diffusion tensor imaging shows white matter in the brain.

Researchers found the patients reporting depression and anxiety had more damage to their white matter than the patients who reported no psychiatric problems.

White Matter, Brain Injuries and Depression

This indicates that a brain injury resulting in damaged white matter leads to depression.

It’s a small study, so it’s not conclusive.

However, the implications for future research are certainly encouraging.


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* “3DSlicer-KubickiJPR2007-fig6″ by Kubicki M., McCarley R.W., Westin C-F., Park H-J., Maier S.E., Kikinis R., Jolesz F.A., Shenton M.E. A review of diffusion tensor imaging studies in schizophrenia. J Psychiatry Res. 2007 Jan-Feb;41(1-2):15-30. PMID: 16023676. PMCID: PMC2768134. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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