News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.

Mission

The speed of technology in neuroscience as it impacts ethical and just decisions in the legal system needs to be understood by lawyers, judges, public policy makers, and the general public. The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior is an academic and professional resource for the education, research, and understanding of neuroscience and the law. Read more

3 Hours of Exercise a Week May Lower Your Depression Risk

The New York Times reported on a recently published study from CLBB affiliated faculty member Dr. Jordan Smoller’s lab, which found observational evidence to suggest that physical activity is related to mental health, regardless of genetic vulnerability. The study was featured prominently in the article:

“So, for the new study, which was published this month in Depression and Anxiety, researchers at Harvard University and other institutions decided to look into those issues. They began by turning to a trove of health data gathered for the ongoing Partners Biobank study. It contains records for thousands of men and women in the greater Boston area who have provided DNA samples and opened their electronic health records to investigators.

The researchers pulled the records of almost 8,000 of these men and women who had filled out a questionnaire about exercise habits. It asked them to recall how much time each week during the past year they had spent in a variety of activities. Those activities included walking, whether for exercise or transportation, running, biking, using exercise machines, or attending dance or yoga classes.

The researchers then examined the men’s and women’s DNA, looking for genetic variations believed to increase the risk for depression, and scored their volunteers as being at high, moderate or low inherited risk for depression.

They also checked each person’s medical records for codes indicating a diagnosis of depression, either before they joined the biobank or for two years afterward.

Then the researchers crosschecked all of this data and soon noted several interesting and consistent patterns. Perhaps least surprising, those men and women harboring a high genetic risk for depression were more likely, in general, to develop depression than volunteers with low risk scores.

At the same time, physically active people had less risk than people who rarely moved, and the type of exercise barely mattered. If someone spent at least three hours a week participating in any activity, whether it was vigorous, such as running, or gentler, like yoga or walking, he or she was less likely to become depressed than sedentary volunteers, and the risk fell another 17 percent with each additional 30 minutes or so of daily activity.

This link between movement and improved mental health held true for people who had experienced depression in the past. If they reported exercising now, their risk for a subsequent episode of depression fell, compared to the risks for inactive people with a history of depression.

Exercise also substantially altered the risk calculus for people whose DNA predisposed them to depression. If they carried multiple worrisome gene snippets but often exercised, they were no more likely to develop depression than inactive people with little genetic risk.

In effect, physical activity “neutralized” much of the added risk for people born with a propensity for depression, says Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who led the new study.

Exercise did not erase the risk of depression for everyone, she continues. Some active people developed depression. But exercise buffered the risks, even for people born with a predilection for the condition.

This kind of observational study cannot show us, though, if being physically active directly causes people to remain mentally healthy, only that exercise and mental health are linked. It also relied on people’s memories of how much they had exercised recently, which can be notoriously unreliable. In addition, it looked at preventing depression, not treating it.

Despite those caveats, the results suggest that “physical activity of many kinds seems to have beneficial effects” for mental health, says Dr. Jordan Smoller, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.”

Read the full article, “3 Hours of Exercise a Week May Lower Your Depression Risk”, published by the New York Times on November 20, 2019.

Cognitive Ability in Childhood and the Chronicity and Suicidality of Depression

By Galen Chin-Lun Hung, Stefanie A. Pietras, Hannah Carliner, Laurie Martin, Larry J. Seidman, Stephen L. Buka, and Stephen E. Gilman | The British Journal of Psychiatry | November 2015

Abstract:

Background

There is inconsistent evidence regarding the influence of general cognitive abilities on the long-term course of depression.

Aims

To investigate the association between general childhood cognitive abilities and adult depression outcomes.

Method

We conducted a cohort study using data from 633 participants in the New England Family Study with lifetime depression. Cognitive abilities at age 7 were measured using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. Depression outcomes were assessed using structured diagnostic interviews administered up to four times in adulthood between ages 17 and 49.

Results

In analyses adjusting for demographic factors and parental psychiatric illness, low general cognitive ability (i.e. IQ<85 v. IQ>115) was associated with recurrent depressive episodes (odds ratio (OR) = 2.19, 95% CI 1.20–4.00), longer episode duration (rate ratio 4.21, 95% CI 2.24–7.94), admission to hospital for depression (OR = 3.65, 95% CI 1.34–9.93) and suicide ideation (OR = 3.79, 95% CI 1.79–8.02) and attempt (OR = 4.94, 95% CI 1.67–14.55).

Conclusions

Variation in cognitive abilities, predominantly within the normal range and established early in childhood, may confer long-term vulnerability for prolonged and severe depression. The mechanisms underlying this vulnerability need to be established to improve the prognosis of depression among individuals with lower cognitive abilities.

Read the full article here.

Racial and Ethnic Differences in Prenatal Life Stress and Postpartum Depression Symptoms

By Cindy H. Liu, Rebecca Giallo, Stacey N. Doan, Larry J. Seidman, and Ed Tronick | Archives of Psychiatric Nursing | November 13, 2015

Abstract:

This study determined the risk of core depression symptoms based on life stress domains during pregnancy, and whether stressors varied by race/ethnicity. The sample consisted of 2,344 White, African American, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander (API) Massachusetts women who recently gave birth. African Americans and Hispanics who endorsed high relational and high financial stress were more likely to report high depressed mood and loss of interest; high physical stress was associated with high depressed mood among API. Screening based on life stress domains may be informative in determining risk for core depression symptoms during the postpartum period especially for minority groups.

Read the full article here.

Pharmacological Approaches to the Challenge of Treatment-Resistant Depression

By Dawn F. Ionescu, Jerrold F. Rosenbaum, and Jonathan E. Alpert | Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience | June 2015

Abstract:

Although monoaminergic antidepressants revolutionized the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) over a half-century ago, approximately one third of depressed patients experience treatment-resistant depression (TRD). Such patients account for a disproportionately large burden of disease, as evidenced by increased disability, cost, human suffering, and suicide. This review addresses the definition, causes, evaluation, and treatment of unipolar TRD, as well as the major treatment strategies, including optimization, augmentation, combination, and switch therapies. Evidence for these options, as outlined in this review, is mainly focused on large-scale trials or meta-analyses. Finally, we briefly review emerging targets for antidepressant drug discovery and the novel effects of rapidly acting antidepressants, with a focus on ketamine.

Read the full article here.

Older Adults with Depression and Mild Cognitive Impairment are More Vulnerable to Accelerated Brain Aging, Pitt Study Says

University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences Media Relations | August 7, 2014

People who develop depression and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) after age 65 are more likely to have biological and brain imaging markers that reflect a greater vulnerability for accelerated brain aging, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The findings were published online in Molecular Psychiatry.

Older adults with major depression have double the risk of developing dementia in the future compared with those who have never had the mood disorder, said senior investigator Meryl A. Butters, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, Pitt School of Medicine. But there’s no clear explanation for why a treatable mood disorder like depression leads to increased risk for dementia, a progressive brain disease. Until now, most studies have examined only one or two biomarkers to get at this question. Continue reading »