When you are feeling depressed, it might seem easier said than done to simply think happier thoughts. But early findings from an ongoing Stanford University study suggest that it might be possible to rewire one’s brain to fight off negative thoughts.

The study involves girls between the ages of 10 and 14 whose mothers are or have been depressed; previous research shows that these girls have a significantly higher risk of developing depression than those without a family history.

One of the two studies involved using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how the girls’ brains react to disturbing images, such as photos of accidents:

“The brains of people who are depressed or at risk of becoming depressed overreact to negative experiences. Their bodies respond with increased heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol production and other physical indicators of stress. A depressive episode may not be far behind. During the fMRI … the researchers watch how much blood flows to each part of the brain. They pay particular attention to the amygdala region.”

According to study leader Ian Gotlib, “Everybody activates the amygdala to some extent when they see a negative picture. We have found that depressed adults and children at risk for depression activate it a lot more. And that can impair their day-to-day functioning.”

The girls watch their brain activity on a graph while they are undergoing the fMRI, and the researchers then ask the girls to try to dull the response by thinking about positive experiences instead.

“They see a line and we say to them, ‘We’d like you to make it lower,'” Gotlib said. “Many of us would think it’s impossible — how can we change the level of activation in a particular part of our brain without affecting the level of activation in another part of our brain?”

However, the researchers found that most of the girls are successful.

“Most of the girls are self-satisfied,” said researcher Paul Hamilton. “They’re happy but they also come across as a little amazed they were able to do it. … But, in fact, the brain is a very dynamic organ. We’re happy we’ve been able to give them a potentially adaptive strategy to cope.”

Source: Stanford University

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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