What Does A Depressed Brain Look Like?

In this brief guide, we will be discussing what does a depressed brain look like, parts of the brain affected by depression, treatment for depression and other frequently asked questions about the subject.

What is depression?

Depression is a psychological disorder that negatively affects the way we feel, think and act and that may result in danger, distress, dysfunctionality at home and/or in school or work and may deviate one from most people.

Symptoms of depression:

–          loss of interest and pleasurable activities

–          feelings of worthlessness

–          lack of hope

–          recurrent thoughts of suicidal ideation and thoughts

–          decreased energy

–          insomnia

–          excessive or lack of sleep

–          body pains

–          loss of appetite or excessive eating

–          significant change in weight

–          psychomotor agitation

–          lack or loss of self-care

How depression affects our brain

Depression causes some parts of the brain’s structure and functioning to change and may deplete. There are many parts of the brain affected because of depression. The following are a few:


The hippocampus is placed near the brain’s center which regulates and stores the production of the hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone released by the body as a fight-or-flight response in times of emergency, stress that are physically and mentally related including depression.

Excessive amounts of cortisol can cause problems to the brain due to stress and chemical imbalance in the body. This also results in impairment in memory.

Normal or healthy people produce brain cells (neurons) throughout their life by the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus. However, for people with depression (major depressive disorder) or those who experience its symptoms, production of new brain cells due to the increase in cortisol may be slowed and cause the neurons in the hippocampus to shrink. This may lead to memory problems.

It was found that a person who suffers from major depressive disorder has a 9-13% smaller hippocampus compared to a person who has never experienced depression. Changes can be observable from eight months to one year.

Grey Matter

Our gray matter is a brain tissue made up of neurons and cell bodies. People who have depression have thicker gray matter on portions involving emotions and self-perception.

Prefrontal cortex

Our prefrontal cortex is located in the front of our brain responsible for making decisions, forming memories and regulating emotions. When the body produces an excessive amount of cortisol, this part appears to shrink as well. Abnormality in the prefrontal cortex also reduces its functionality by preventing an individual to take actions on things (executive functioning) that should be done and impairment in attention.


The amygdala is known to be the emotional brain. It is an almond-shape within the anterior portion of the temporal lobes. It is responsible for regulating emotions and processes fearful stimulations. Abnormality in the amygdala can affect regulation in mood and emotions.

This part is more active among people who have major depressive disorder compared to a brain of a person who has not experienced depression.

It was found that when a person with depression sees a sad face, their amygdala becomes more active compared to a person without depression. However, when both are exposed to a happy face, there is only little difference.

It is also speculated that increased levels of cortisol also affect the activity in the amygdala.

The amygdala is also enlarged as a result of persistent exposure to stress and high levels of cortisol. Enlargement of the amygdala disrupts activity and sleeping patterns. This also results in irregularity of the amount of chemicals and hormones in the body leading to further problems.

Researchers believe that high levels of cortisol in modifying the brain structure and functioning that can lead to depression or major depressive disorder. Our cortisol level is normally increased when we wake up in the morning and decreases during night time. It fluctuates during the day depending on the situation we are in, how we are thinking, feeling and behaving.

However, for people with depression, cortisol levels remain steady or even worse by excessive amounts.

The brain activity of a person in a normal state and depressive states was scanned with PET. The scan showed decreased activity in the brain due to depression with an increase of green and blue colors, along with decreased yellow and white areas.

Brain Inflammation from Depression

In a recent study, it was found that the longer the person is depressed, the greater the brain inflammation. This has also been relevant to people with Dysthymia or Persistent Depressive Disorder which is also known to be a Double Depression.

Brain inflammation causes neurons to die and can lead to other complications such as:

             • shrinkage

             • impairment in function of neurotransmitters

             • decreased neuroplasticity

…and dysfunction in:

             • development of the brain

             • memory

             • mood

             • learning

Treatments for Depression in the Brain

Below are the list of medications that can help with the imbalance of the chemicals in the brain due to depression:

·         selective serotonin uptake inhibitor (SSRIs) – Alleviates depresseive symptoms by changing the levels of serotonin. e.g. citalopram (Celexa), include fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil),

·         tricyclic antidepressants and serotonin-norepinephrine

reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)- Esed together, this will relieve depressive symptoms by changing the levels of norepinephrine and serotonin in the brain. These chemicals improved energy and mood. e.g.,    venlafaxine (Effexor

XR) and SNRIs include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and trimipramine (Surmontil)and Imipramine (Tofranil)

·         norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake

inhibitors (NDRIs) – Increases levels of

the mood-boosting chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain of  a person with major depressive disorder. e.g., Bupropion


  • monoamine oxidase inhibitors
    (MAOIs) – Improves neuron communication and increases the amount of the brain’s serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
    brain cell communication.
  • atypical antidepressants – this drug blocks communication between brain cell to calm the body. Some examples are mood stabilizers, antipsychotics and tranquilizers.

·         Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) – Procedure used that boosts connection or communication between brain cells by passing electrical currents through the brain

·         Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) – A noninvasive treatment that regulates mood by sending electrical pulses sent through magnetic energy in certain regions of the brain responsible for mood control.

·         Light Therapy (Phototherapy) – Is found not only as an effective treatment for depression but for other medical conditions like sundown syndrome. This alleviates symptoms of depression because of its effect on the brain chemicals from the special light box. Consult your doctor about light therapy.

  • Psychotherapy – Believed by researchers to relieve symptoms of major depressive disorder or depression and can alter the structure of the brain.

Other ways on how to recover from depression

  • Eating healthy foods
  • Working out
  • Getting into hobbies that help you focus and be in a peaceful state like drawing, taking photos, etc.to strengthen connection between your neurons
  • good sleeping hygiene to repair and help grow brain cells
  • avoid illegal drugs and alcohol

Consult with your doctor about ways on how to alleviate symptoms of depression.

FAQs: What Does A Depressed Brain Look Like?

What does a depressed brain look like? 

A depressed brain makes the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex smaller, enlarged amygdala and thicker gray matter.

Can depression be seen in the brain?

Yes, it can. However, checking through a brain scan alone should not and cannot be the only way in determining whether a person has depression or not. It also requires a session with a mental health professional so further assessment, evaluation, interviews and tests will be done before making a diagnosis.  

What parts of the brain is affected by depression?

The parts of the brain affected by depression are the hippocampus, grey matter, prefrontal cortex and amygdala to name a few. Its structural and functional aspects are affected by depression.

What happens in the brain during depression?

A lot. With depression, the amygdala is enlarged and hyperactive resulting in disturbance in sleep and activity patterns. This can also cause abnormal release of hormones and functionality that may also lead to further problems such as remission, comorbidity with another mental illness and other medical conditions such as heart disease.

Can a brain MRI show depression?

Yes, it can. However, MRI can only detect changes in the physical structure and its functionality through markers of major depressive disorder. Note that an MRI alone cannot determine whether or not a person is clinically depressed.

What is the real cause of depression?

Depression has many possible causes. The biology, psychology and social aspect of the person must be considered. Diathesis and eugenics may also contribute to a person’s clinical depression or depressive symptoms. Medication, stressful life events and other medical conditions should also be considered.

Can the brain heal itself from mental illness?

Yes, it can. The brain has the ability to recalibrate, change and heal itself. Scientists suggest a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. It is considered to be one of the most significant developments and discoveries in understanding the brain.
However, this is not usually easily achieved. Quality effort, efficient strategies, interventions and social support must be done and provided to restore healing from mental illness.
Also note that other mental illnesses such as psychosis or schizophrenia may make it become more challenging to recover from for a person.

Is depression neurological or psychological?

Depression is neurological and biological. Anything psychological is ultimately biological.

Can a brain scan detect mental illness?

Yes, it can. However, brain scan alone cannot detect mental illness. But brain scan can be used to identify markers of mental illness and what makes a person’s brain with psychological disorder different from people who are healthy and normal.

Can you inherit depression?

Yes, you can. Depression can be inherited. Research has shown that it is thrice more likely that a person will develop a major depressive disorder when they have a parent or sibling that has depression. However, research on the genetics of depression is in its early stages at the moment.
Mental illness markers can be captured and identified with MRI, ERP qEEG, and PET machines.

Does depression cause memory loss?

Yes, it can. Depression can cause memory loss due to the impairment it comes from structural and functional impairment it causes. Confusion, difficulty focusing and other executive functioning from depression can result in dysfunction in memory.

Does depression make your brain age faster?

Yes, it can. As research shows, depression can physically make the brain age faster. Not only that it can make the brain age faster, but deteriorates and impairs its structure and functioning which will resonate in the person’s way of thinking, feeling and behaving.

Are Depressed brains different?

Yes, it is. Depressed brains are different from a normal and healthy brain by gray matter abnormalities, brain inflammation, brain shrinkage and hyperactive and enlarged amygdala. Levels of hormones such as cortisol is also different from the two.

Can depression cause neurological symptoms?

Yes, it can. A person with a history of depression has a high risk of developing neurological symptoms or conditions like migraine, stroke, dementia, and epilepsy.  

What does loneliness do to someone?

Loneliness can make a person feel alone, unwanted, empty, suicidal, helpless and worthless. Lack of self-esteem and self-care may also show due to the effects of depression. However, loneliness can make a person creative. There are a lot of brilliant people who suffer from depression who are successful in their career such as J.K. Rowling, Chester, Jim Carrey, Johnny Depp and Robin Williams.

BetterHelp: A Better Alternative

Those who are seeking therapy online may also be interested in BetterHelp. BetterHelp offers plenty of formats of therapy, ranging from live chats, live audio sessions and live video sessions. In addition, unlimited messaging through texting, audio messages and even video messages are available here.

BetterHelp also offers couples therapy and therapy for teenagers in its platform. Furthermore, group sessions can also be found in this platform, covering more than twenty different topics related to mental health and mental illness. The pricing of BetterHelp is also pretty cost-effective, especially considering the fact that the platform offers financial aid to most users.


In this brief guide, we discussed what a depressed brain looks like, parts of the brain affected by depression, treatment for depression and other frequently asked questions about the subject.

If you’ve enjoyed the ”What Does A Depressed Brain Look Like?” mentioned above, I would recommend you to take a look at ”Neurodivergent Depression’‘ too.