2011 - March - Dr.Harry Barry "The Plastic Brain and Depression"

Dr. Harry Barry
“The Plastic Brain & Depression”
The last decade has seen an explosion in the field of Neuroscience which has blown away all our preconceptions about illness like Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and suicide. At the heart of our new found understanding is the realization that the brain is an incredibly adaptable, ‘plastic’ organ with a phenomenal capacity for change during our lifetimes. It used to be thought that the brain was quite fixed in terms of both numbers of neurons and structural pathways from childhood. We now know that from birth to death it is constantly reorganizing and renewing both – hugely dependent on how environmental influences alter the expression of genes within the neurons of the brain (a chemical process called ‘epigenetics’).
This has major implications for our modern understanding and treatment of MDD.
It was originally thought that all of the above were caused by a ‘chemical imbalance’ with serotonin being the major culprit (but noradrenalin and dopamine being of equal importance). Cure this ‘imbalance’ and all will be well. We now realize that this is an archaic look at a much more complex problem. To understand its origins we have to first realize that the brain has 2 key areas which control our mental health. The first is the Limbic System (emotional brain) in the centre of the brain; and the second is the Prefrontal Cortex (logical brain) which takes up 1/3 of the cerebral cortex and is at the front of the brain.
There is a constant battle during our lives between our logical and emotional brains with the latter often winning! But in general there is reasonable harmony between both – with emotions and logic involved in our day to day life decisions. In MDD this balance is removed – with our emotional limbic brain starting to pour out negative thoughts swamping our logical brain’s ability to shut down.
The modern view of the most likely cause of MDD is that some of us as a result of our genes and environment (how those genes are switched on or off) end up us handling ‘stress’ in totally different ways. As the person grows from birth to teens key pathways between logical and emotional brains become disrupted by stress in those who are vulnerable to above. When the person them encounters major stress in teens or twenties (or sometimes later) these pathway vulnerabilities appear and the logical brain loses its usual control on our unruly emotions. It seems as if each subsequent episode adds to this disruption till eventually it takes a small amount of stress to trigger an episode. We also know that significant alcohol consumption under the age of 15 also disrupts these pathways – increasing the risk of future MDD by 600%. Key stressors like abuse in all forms, bullying and major loss often act as major stressors and may set up these depression vulnerability pathways.
The Information Evening will be hosted by Wicklow Mental Health Association in the Friar’s Suite at the Grand Hotel in Wicklow town on Tuesday, March 29th 2011, the doors will open at 7.15pm and the event will commence at 7.30pm sharp.
The event will be provided free of charge. All are welcome to come along.
Dr Harry Barry is a board member of Aware who has almost 35 years experience as a medical doctor with most of that spent as a GP. He has a long standing interest in mental health and in particular in improving our understanding of the role of neuroscience in both the cause and indeed the treatment of the main mental health illnesses such as major depression, anxiety disorders, addiction and indeed suicide itself. He has written two books on the subject – ‘Flagging the Problem – a new approach to mental health’ (Liberties Press) and ‘Flagging the Therapy – pathways out of depression and anxiety’ (Liberties Press).

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