A study from my alma-mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, increases our understanding of depression and how it affects one’s ability to experience positive emotions. Up until more recently it was believed that the brains of depressed individuals exhibited an overall decrease in activity in the regions of the brain responsible for generating pleasure/reward/positive emotions. Using fMRI imaging the UW researchers found that the brains of depressed individuals actually exhibit the same initial levels of activity in positive/pleasure-generating brain regions. Instead they found differences in the ability to sustain positive emotions. While it is not immediately clear how these results will impact treatment, they do provide insight into the nature of depression.
In terms of pharmacological treatments, taking advantage of these findings will require more sophisticated drug actions. With regards to behavioral interventions, these findings might suggest that patients should be assisted in clarifying their medium to long-term goals. Additionally, psychological treatment may also focus more heavily on helping patients develop a more distributed happiness. Depressed individuals (and non-depressed, for that matter) ought to create a life in which they receive pleasure and reward from multiple areas of their life. This bottom-up (behavior to brain influence) approach is more likely to lead to long-term, enduring positive emotions. In general, this study lends support to notion that depression is best treated by psychological/behavioral treatments or in combination of drugs, not drugs alone.