Mind and Brain
The picture to the right demonstrates a remarkable discovery about the human brain: it can grow even as we age. Our brain has natural mechanisms to protect itself and further its growth. During a mood disorder, these mechanisms may not work well, in part because of an imbalance of stress hormones like cortisol. Stress and mood disorders can both take a toll on the brain.
Another remarkable discovery is shown below. Several medications for mood disorders actually help the brain recover its health and grow new connections. These include lithium and depakote (valproate) for bipolar disorder and antidepressants for unipolar depression. Notice how the brain cells to the right, after medication treatment, are more plentiful and healthy:
Scientists used to believe our brains didn’t change in adulthood, but new imaging techniques like these have taught us otherwise. We also know that activity can enhance the brain: walking, playing piano and juggling promotes growth in the brain (but the brain shrinks back if the activities are given up).
These connections help dispel the myth that the mind and brain are separate. The word Resilience Factors describes anything which improves brain function, whether it is psychological or biological in nature. Biological resilience factors include BDNF and bcl-2 (two molecules which enhance brain growth). Psychological resilience factors include:
Optimism, humor, gratitude, flexible thinking, acceptance, spirituality, charity or altruism, the ability to “step outside yourself,” supportive friends, good role models, and physical exercise.
To continue to the next section, click Genes & Inheritance.
—Updated 3/5/13 by Chris Aiken, MD