Cognitive Deficits in Depressed Individuals


Major depressive disorder (MDD), or clinical depression, is much more than just a persistent feeling of sadness — it is a serious mental illness that intrudes with a person’s ability to eat, work, sleep and think clearly. In the United States alone, an estimated 16.2 million adults had experienced at least one depressive episode in 2016 — that’s nearly 7 percent of the population aged 18 or older, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Although depression is very common, it’s important to remember that it is also a serious mental health issue.

How does Depression Affect Cognition?

Cognition refers to a range of mental processes — our ability to think, remember, pay attention, understand and more — that help us to perform activities in our daily lives. In the human brain, more than 100 billion nerve cells exist and influence different cognitive domains (e.g., social cognition, executive function, memory, attention, psychomotor speed).
As a core feature of depression, cognitive changes and symptoms (e.g., fatigue, sluggish thinking) can significantly affect a person’s quality of life, life satisfaction and functional abilities A myriad of studies reveal shrinkage of brain volume can also subsequently contribute to cognitive and emotional distress. So, not only are cognitive deficits a result of depression, they may also contribute to its development in some people.

Structural Abnormalities in the Brains of Depressed Individuals

Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that there are structural abnormalities, including reductions in white and grey matter volumes, in the brains of individuals with depression. Grey matter is responsible for muscle regulation and sensory awareness (e.g., hearing and perception, memory, emotions, communications, decisiveness, self-control, etc.), while white matter facilitates the ability of brain cells to communicate with one another through electrical impulses.

A recent study published in Scientific Reports sought to replicate the white matter integrity or subcortical grey matter volume differences of depressed individuals, as has been found in previous studies. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers examined the brain structure of nearly 3,000 people.

The results confirmed the relationship between MDD and reduced white matter integrity, but the researchers did not find any significant differences in subcortical volumes of those with depression compared to their non-depressed counterparts. Other studies also demonstrate gray matter loss in the brains of mentally ill individuals.

Cognitive Deficits Linked to Depression

A new study published in the journal Psychological Medicine suggested that depression was associated with greater cognitive decline, especially as participants grew older, compared to their non-depressed counterparts. Such sstructural brain changes can profoundly increase a person’s risk of cognitive and communication deficits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common signs of cognitive impairment may include:

  • Memory loss
  • Repetitions in questions and storytelling
  • Troubled judgement or decisiveness
  • Difficulty recognizing people
  • Mood disorders
  • Depressed Girl

    Treatment Options for Depression

    Pharmacological treatment: The main pharmacological treatments for depression include second-generation antidepressants (e.g., selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs), mood stabilizers and atypical antipsychotic drugs, which are often prescribed for treating low-to-severe depression and anxiety disorders.

    Non-pharmacological interventions: Also known as psychological treatments, non-pharmacological interventions include talk therapies like psychodynamic therapy, psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps clients change negative or false thinking and improve their coping skills so they are better equipped to deal with anxiety and depression.
    Neurofeedback is a form of therapy intended to regulate the brain waves of individuals struggling with depression or any other mental illness. This option can be considered when all other treatment options fail to work.

    Map to Recovery

    As one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S., depression accounts for a substantial proportion of all the neurological and mental health issues experienced by Americans. In addition, more than 300 million people across all age groups are living with depression, according to the World Health Organization(WHO).

    For any individual who feels persistently sad or depressed, it is critical to understand that major depression may be associated with changes in cognitive function. The best way to overcome the cognitive deficits associated with depression is to receive effective treatment.

    At AKUA Mind & Body, our Mental Health Program includes an array of evidence-based and holistic treatments, including psychodynamic therapy, CBT and group therapy, to help clients overcome depression and have their best chance at lasting recovery. For more information about AKUA’s detox, residential and IOP treatment programs for men and women with addiction, mental illness and eating disorders, contact our 24/7 Admissions helpline.

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