The cognitive mechanisms behind depression

One in five Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in a given year. By the age of 40, 50 per cent of the population will have had a mental illness as the result of a complex interaction between personality, biological, and environmental factors.

Bipolar disorder has a clear, established relationship with genetics. Though this is less true for Major Depressive Disorder, there is still a clear biological component. Specifically, scientists have linked depression to the hippocampus, a structure in the brain responsible for creating and storing memories. Stress causes this region to become smaller and also results in hyperactivity in the amygdala, a region associated with emotion. 

Researchers like Pascale Bockelmann, a Master’s student in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill, are still working to develop a full picture of the condition. Bockelmann believes that depression is, in part, due to a lack of cognitive flexibility, which can be described as the ability to change mindsets.

“The better your cognitive flexibility is, the faster you’ll be able to recover from depression, because a lot of the therapeutic techniques that are used to treat depression also use the same ability or skillset that relies on cognitive flexibility,” Bockelmann said.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one such therapeutic technique for mild to moderate depression that, according to the McGill University Health Centre, focuses on restoring a healthy and productive balance to the interaction between thoughts, actions, and feelings. CBT is meant to be short-term (12-20 sessions), a departure from older psychoanalytic methods.

However, cognitive flexibility offers more than therapeutic value.

“There’s been research to show that cognitive flexibility is predictive of depression, so if you have high cognitive flexibility, you’re less likely to [develop] depression,” Bockelmann said. 

Bockelmann would also like to research how developing cognitive flexibility at a young age can be used as a preventative measure. 

“If you’re able to include tasks in elementary school education that promote cognitive flexibility, it can have a lot of benefits […] for problem solving and creativity but maybe also benefits in terms of being able to overcome mental illnesses like depression,” Bockelmann said.

She chose individuals from multicultural backgroundsdefined as being bilingual and having lived in three countries before turning 18as the study population for her research on depression, since moving around has been linked to higher rates of depression. Bockelmann explained that this is because those who move around a lot often do not have a solid community that they are part of.

“It’s almost the cleanest group,” Bockelmann said. “There are not as many variables to consider, and you can look at culture in a more isolated way.” 

Bockelmann believes that studying multicultural populations can offer an interesting perspective in depression research.

A study that Bockelmann conducted found a possible link between multicultural background and creative problem solving, but it did not show a positive association with cognitive flexibility. She intends to replicate the study with a larger sample size to obtain clearer results.

As is the case with many scientists, Bockelmann became interested in the field of cognitive flexibility and in her study population as a result of personal experience. 

“I grew up as a third-culture kid and lived in many different countries […] and always wondered if it really made me see or think about the world differently than other people,” Bockelmann said.

As her research progresses, she may soon be able to confidently answer that question.

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