Chronically stressful life events have been shown to lead to depression. Chronic stress leads to hyperactivity of HPA axis leading to more glucocorticoids (cortisol) in the human body. This excess cortisol in term is proposed to underlie the affective symptoms of depression. Also, depressive people have been found to have up to 20% smaller hippocampal volume, and a recent theory is gaining ground that depression is due to reduced neurogenesis. Even if the entire spectrum of depressive symptoms is not due to reduced neurogenesis and atrophied or smaller hippocampus, at least the cognitive symptoms of depression are largely due to this.
I stumbled upon a commentary by Robert Sapolsky that although is 10 years old, but I still found interesting and worth bringing to notice of my dear readers. In it Sapolsky looks at a study by Czeh et al that found evidence linking reduced proliferation in dentate gyrus and a shrunken hippocampus to depressive stress as modeled by psycho-social stress paradigm in tree shrew. Also, they found that an antidepressant, tianeptine, reversed the effects of stress by restoring proliferation and hippocampus size and thus reversing symptoms of depression. However the level of glucorticiods were still higher, after anti-depressant treatment, and thus it is apparent that anti-depressants work downstream of stress induced increase in glucorticoids.
Sapolsky believes that the data support either of models presented in figure 1A or figure 1B i.e. the increased glucocrticoids can lead to shrinkage of hippocampus directly or through their effect on affective symptoms. I believe figure 1C is also possible and its not necessarily incompatible with 1A or 1B and that increased stress may lead to increased cortisol- may lead to reduced neurogenesis may lead to shrinkage of hippocampus and which may in turn lead to affective and cognitive symptoms.
An alternative to reduced neurogenesis/ proliferation theory is the dendritic atrophy/ neurotoxicity theory that posits that shrinkage of hippocampus is due to cell death/ white matter loss. This again is a possibility but the evidence in favor of reduced neurogenesis is growing and becoming strong by the day.
Overall the new paradigms in depression research that look beyond serotonin or mono amine imbalance is a welcome trend and hopefully would lead to better interventions and prevention strategies and not just better pharmaceutical innovations. Its time one realized the rile chronic stress play sin depression and how that can be easily prevented to reduce the mental health burden.
Sapolsky, R. (2001). Depression, antidepressants, and the shrinking hippocampus Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98 (22), 12320-12322 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.231475998
Czeh, B. (2001). Stress-induced changes in cerebral metabolites, hippocampal volume, and cell proliferation are prevented by antidepressant treatment with tianeptine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98 (22), 12796-12801 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.211427898