Depression, one of the most common mood disorders, affects not only people’s emotional well-being but also the way their brain functions. The three main parts of the brain affected by depression are the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala. The hormone, cortisol, which is regulated by the hippocampus, surges in depression patients, leading to mood and memory-related problems. The prefrontal cortex may also contract due to high cortisol levels, which can disturb the ability to process emotions and take decisions. Depression can also expand the amygdala, responsible for regulating pleasure and fear.
Results of a new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry on July 11, 2017, have revealed that there are differences in the way depression affects the brain activity of adolescent males and females. To establish their hypothesis, the researchers recruited adolescent boys and girls, aged between 11 and 18 years, who were suffering from depression. They also recruited a control group comprising healthy male and female adolescents. Happy, sad or neutral words were flashed on a screen in front of the participants in a specific order, and brain scans were collected through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
It was found that brain areas such as the supramarginal gyrus and posterior cingulate cortex of depressed boys reacted differently to negative stimuli than depressed girls. For instance, adolescent males recorded higher activity in the supramarginal gyrus as a reaction to sad (negative) words and lower activity in response to happy (positive) words. They also showed diminished activity in the cerebellum, which was not observed in adolescent girls.
Need of gender-specific treatment of depression in adolescence
Men and women experience depression differently, which encompasses the way in which the disorder manifests itself as well as its outcome. Past research has not given sufficient attention to depression in males due to the higher prevalence of the disorder among females. To bridge this gap, researchers at the University of Cambridge undertook the study to understand how depression affects adolescent boys and girls differently.
According to Jie-Yu Chuang, a researcher at the University of Cambridge and one of the authors of the study, males have a predisposition to experience persistent depression, whereas females tend to experience depression episodically. Males are also more likely to encounter serious depression-related outcomes such as substance abuse and suicide. By age 15, young girls have twice the likelihood of experiencing depression than boys of the same age. This could be due to various reasons such as body image issues, changes in hormones and heritable factors.
Currently, depression treatment for male and female patients is almost the same. Chuang explains that a gender-specific approach for the treatment and prevention of depression should be adopted early in adolescence. She hypothesizes that these early precautionary measures may prevent the disorder from aggravating during adulthood. Although the findings are preliminary, Chuang deems such differences to be embedded in the brain’s “default network” – an area that is triggered the most when an individual is relaxing or daydreaming.
Treatment for depressed boys
Past research has shown an association between depression and the brain regions. However, further research is needed to understand why these regions are affected differently in depressed boys, and if this has any bearing on how boys suffer from and cope with depression. Since the incidence of depression is higher among girls, the researchers were unable to recruit more boys for the study, something which future studies should consider for a more accurate representation. Chuang and her colleagues are also interested in undertaking a broader, gender-based longitudinal study investigating depression from youth to adulthood.
If you know a teenage boy who is exhibiting symptoms of depression, White River Academy can help. Located in Utah, it is one of the leading therapeutic boarding schools that offers help for teenage depression and other mental health problems. Call our 24/7 helpline number or chat online with one of our representatives to know more about depression in teens and get appropriate help.