Study Supports Guilt's Role in Depression

TUESDAY, June 5 (HealthDay News) -- Guilt appears to play a role in depression, according to a new study.

British researchers used functional MRI to scan the brains of people with a history of major depression and a control group of people who never had depression. Participants in both groups were asked to imagine acting badly toward their best friend and then to describe their feelings about doing so.

Compared to those in the control group, people with a history of depression showed different responses in brain regions associated with guilt and knowledge of acceptable social behavior, the University of Manchester team found.

"For the first time, we chart the regions of the brain that interact to link detailed knowledge about socially appropriate behavior -- the anterior temporal lobe -- with feelings of guilt -- the subgenual region of the brain -- in people who are prone to depression," lead researcher Dr. Roland Zahn said in a university news release.

In people with a history of depression, these brain regions do not connect as strongly as they do in people who've never had depression.

"Interestingly, this 'decoupling' only occurs when people prone to depression feel guilty or blame themselves, but not when they feel angry or blame others. This could reflect a lack of access to details about what exactly was inappropriate about their behavior when feeling guilty, thereby extending guilt to things they are not responsible for and feeling guilty for everything," Zahn said.

The study, published June 4 in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, is the first to provide evidence of brain mechanisms to support Sigmund Freud's belief that guilt and self-blame play a major role in depression.

The findings may explain why some people react to stress with depression rather than aggression and could lead to a new way to predict depression risk, the researchers said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about depression.

SOURCE: University of Manchester, news release, June 4, 2012

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