A preliminary study of 10- to 14-year-old girls whose mothers are, or have been depressed, has uncovered a fascinating potential for their brains. Because related research has shown girls born from depressed mothers or mothers who have experienced depression have a higher risk of the illness, they were the focus of Stanford researchers. What they found though could be of use to everyone.
Depressed people have stronger responses to negative experiences, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol production. By observing the girls brain activity when they were shown distressing images like those depicting accidents, and representing their stress response with a graph, the researchers could then ask the girls to the try to lower the graph by thinking of positive scenarios like playing with pets. The real-time brain scanning showed the girls activity associated with stress decreased when they began to imagine happy scenarios. The girls could see their own graphs, and how they decreased in stress levels when they imagined the positive scenarios. When they learned they were able to decrease the level with their thoughts, they were happy and sort of amazed.
Another study task involved having them look at two faces on a computer screen, one negative and one positive, and move a dot towards the positive face by clicking a cursor on it. Then another pair of similar images appears with a dot and the same situation is repeated over and over. This computer game teaches the depression-prone girls to choose an option which is more positive when presented with a negative one.
The point of the Stanford research is not that it is a cure for depression, rather it could help these girls learn to prevent it. A follow-up period after the tests seemed to indicate there is a potential for depression prevention. After putting the girls through some tests to induce stress, they did not react as strongly.
So hopefully the research is on the right track and will yield insights into how people who are genetically-predisposed to depression can learn from an early age some cognitive techniques to prevent depression, or perhaps reduce its severity.
Image Credit: Vincent Van Gogh, Public Domain