Probing the differences in brain activity may help people with depression

Victoria University psychology student Rosie Moody is researching the differences in the brains of people who are prone to depression.

Flashing images of mutilated bodies are part of Victoria University research on people prone to depression.

Scientists have found that those with a predisposition to the often-misunderstood disease have, in general, a differing pattern of electrical activity in their brain's frontal region.

"People prone to depression tend to have more activity over the right frontal area of the brain than the left," psychology masters student Rosie Moody said. The same brain activity patterns have also been spotted in people who had experienced depression in the past or had a family history of the illness, and even in the infants of depressed mothers.

But why this link existed was not yet known. Some research suggested the front left part of the brain played an important role in helping us to control and shift our attention, and ignoring things we don't want to think about, Moody said. She is testing a theory that the front left side of the brain is responsible for controlling negative information. "If you were someone who had less activity on the left side, then you would have more difficulty ignoring negative things."

She is doing this by conducting a study on the university's undergraduate students. Their brain activity is recorded by an electrode cap on their head, first while they are in a resting state and then while they are asked to do a long – even dull – computer task.

"We tell them they'll also see erotic and gory images. We use mutilated bodies mostly, things like injuries and burn victims. They're not very nice –R18 images."

Moody was about halfway through the 60 subjects she hoped to test this year. By looking at their brain activity and how the participants differ will help her and her supervisors to better understand what is going on in these dorsolateral prefrontal cortex regions of the brain, and how this relates to depression susceptibility.

The more that was known about how the brain worked and how this linked to mental illness, the better the treatment – and even prevention – of depression would be, she said. If this group of people did turn out to struggle with controlling certain thoughts, treatment programmes could work on training their minds to get better at this.

"But research is a very, very long road with very tiny steps." The tendency for activity in the right over the left made people more likely to get depression, but other circumstances still played a role, she said. "It's a propensity. It's tied to all sorts of genetic factors as well ... But if you add stress into the life, especially experiencing big stress, then the person with this vulnerability becomes a lot more likely to get depression."