October 11, 2018 6:19 PM

Make the Brain a Joyful Place and Combat Depression

A reflection by a top neuroscientist about the science of stress – and the importance of taking pleasure in small things.

Yard with mushroom (left) and closeup of a mushroom (right)

Originally published by the National Academy of Sciences

This morning, before I had my cup of coffee, I took some photos of a mushroom—one of many that have suddenly appeared on our front lawn on this rainy fall day.

It’s not a remarkable mushroom, I don’t know whether it’s edible or poisonous, I don’t even know its name. But it made me smile because it was unexpected. Growing up in Syria, I hardly ever saw mushrooms, and we didn’t have a lawn. It gave me a moment of joy to see it.

I’ve always done little things like this without thinking, but with age, I’ve learned to pause for a moment and think about the pleasure I take in them. I believe they make a difference to my mental health and the health of my brain.

Having spent my career studying the brain biology of emotions, stress, addiction, and depression, I am saddened by the idea that our brains seem unhappy with us. By us, I mean the human race. And I wonder what we humans can do about it.

It seems the ultimate irony that our amazing advances appear to be making us less mentally healthy. We are surrounded by news about dramatic breakthroughs in the medical sciences. However, in the areas of depression, anxiety disorders, and addiction, things are getting worse, in some cases a lot worse.

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Perfect storm

In the U.S., someone dies every 7 minutes from an opioid overdose. The suicide rate is at an all-time high, and the burden of the global rate of depression is staggering. We appear to have created the perfect storm for making our brains unhappy — unhealthy diets, lack of exercise, disrupted sleep and circadian rhythms, and especially the loss of close-knit communities with social support.

While some societies are in the grip of famines and natural disasters, others are suffering from man-made disasters including terrible economic disparities and the consequences of civil and uncivil wars. Even in supposedly peaceful and thriving countries, divisiveness, anger, and rancor have become the political norm, and the negativity can be efficiently spread to millions of people through social media.

All of this embodies the quintessential features of stress — the inability to control a situation and worse yet, the inability to predict the outcome. It is not easy to turn this tide, but can we as individuals do anything to save our own mental health? My suggestion is based on my scientific knowledge coupled with a hopefully reasonable extrapolation.

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Clinical depression and the brain

Neuroscience research on the biology of mood disorders has shown that the impact of clinical depression on the human brain is deep and widespread—much more so than we might have guessed.

While depression is likely triggered by the disrupted activity of a specific brain circuit, protracted depression affects a large swath of the brain. Moreover, it impacts not just one or two neurotransmitters that we could correct with a drug — the entire biochemical and cellular balance of many brain areas is altered.

The brain seems to be impoverished, with a disruption of growth factors, an imbalance of the glial cells that support neurons and a diminution of the capacity for neural remodeling or neuroplasticity.

Being depressed damages our brain, and this insidious process overtakes more and more territory the longer and the more severe the illness. This explains why there are so many different symptoms of this illness —  feelings, thought, motivation, physiological, hormonal, and social functions can all be disrupted. It also explains why it is so hard to treat severe and recurrent depression.

While we are working on understanding the genetics and brain biology of mood disorders and on finding better treatments, the real goal is to stem the epidemic of depression, prevent the illness and avoid the insult to the brain.

Joy for the brain

Our best hope is to build a level of resilience by immunizing ourselves against this insidious process before it takes hold.

So here is my extrapolation: I think it’s plausible that the brain can exhibit the converse of the depressive process. This would mean that the brain circuitry that is activated by joy, healthy pleasure, and sustained positive emotions can also spread its reach and affect a large swath of the brain.

I predict that if we naturally stimulate the brain circuits that encode joy, the news will travel to many other regions, enriching them and buffering us against depression.

And the best way to achieve this is through regularly doing things that we really like, that we can control, and that take us back to the basics of life — hugging a child, helping a friend or a stranger, watching a sunrise, savoring a meal, walking by a river, and yes, photographing a lowly mushroom — and pausing to feel the joy.

Learn more about Dr. Akil’s work on the National Academy of Sciences website