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Depression changes the structure of the brain

July 2017: CCBS researchers have published brain imaging data suggesting that depression may cause alterations in the brain's white matter.

Dr Heather Whalley, Professor Andrew McIntosh and colleagues, in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, have published brain scanning findings showing changes in the brain’s white matter that could be the result of depression.

This large study used diffusion tensor imaging in a study of 3461 people who were drawn from the UK Biobank. The researchers found that white matter integrity was reduced in people who reported symptoms indicative of depression. The same changes were not seen in people who were unaffected.

White matter is a key component of the brain’s wiring and its disruption has been linked to problems with emotion processing and thinking skills.

This study uses data from the largest single sample published to date and shows that people with depression have changes in the white matter wiring of their brain.

There is an urgent need to provide treatment for depression and an improved understanding of it mechanisms will give us a better chance of developing new and more effective methods of treatment. Our next steps will be to look at how the absence of changes in the brain relates to better protection from distress and low mood.

Dr Heather WhalleySenior Research Fellow, Division of Psychiatry, CCBS


The study forms part of the Wellcome Trust initiative Stratifying Resilience and Depression Longitudinally (STRADL), which aims to classify subtypes of depression and identify risk factors.

In this short video, Professor Andrew McIntosh introduces the aims of the project.

Related links

Read the paper in Scientific Reports: Subcortical volume and white matter integrity abnormalities in major depressive disorder: findings from UK Biobank imaging data. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05507-6

Dr Heather Whalley Principal Investigator profile

Professor Andrew McIntosh Principal Investigator profile

Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences Division of Psychiatry