Untreated depression can cause physical changes to the brain, but with proper treatment, you can reverse these effects.

Depression doesn’t just affect your feelings and emotions. This condition can also have physical impacts, as well as the potential to change the structure and functions of the brain.

Brain structure refers to the physical parts of the brain, such as the frontal lobe or hippocampus. Function refers to how the brain communicates using electrical signals.

When depression is treated, you can reverse the damage. With successful treatment, brain scans will likely show you an average, healthy brain.

Major depressive disorder (MDD) can cause changes to how the brain communicates with your nervous system, as well as physical parts of the brain. However, describing these changes as “brain damage” may be extreme and inaccurate.

The idea of depression changing the brain is a relatively new concept and not fully settled by researchers and scientists yet.

A 2018 review of studies related to MRI scans noted that most results were inconsistent and controversial. But while results were inconsistent, this same review also suggested that there could be overlap in the areas of the brain that depression may change.

This overlap might indicate that altered interactions between various regions of your brain may contribute to or cause MDD. However, the review didn’t address whether changes in the brain occurred due to depression, or if depression occurred due to changes in the brain.

Other researchers believe that chronic stress and anxiety, which can be common with depression, may damage connections between neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the communication circuits within the brain, and that damage may hinder the brain from communicating efficiently.

Currently, more research is needed on this topic overall.

Changes in the brain’s structure and function are not the only physical effects of untreated depression. Unaddressed MDD can also cause physical symptoms, such as:

Though experts still do not fully understand everything about how depression may physically affect the brain, they do know that it can change certain structures in the brain and alter how they work together.

The hippocampus is a complex structure in the brain that plays a role in memory and learning.

People who study Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative brain diseases take an interest in this area of the brain because it’s often the first area of the brain to start degenerating.

Depression may cause the release of glucocorticoid in the brain, a type of steroid that can damage the hippocampus and other areas of the central nervous system. When this occurs, you may experience symptoms associated with neurocognitive disorder (dementia), such as memory loss.

According to a 2018 review, many experts believe that MDD primarily affects the frontal lobe. Depression may cause a combination of:

  • lesions
  • shrinking gray matter
  • poor communication to the rest of the brain

These changes may affect:

  • mood regulation
  • loss of motivation
  • cognitive abilities
  • emotional bias
  • apathy

The parietal lobe plays a role in several areas of your thinking and emotions, including:

  • prediction of rewards
  • organization
  • decision making
  • emotional responses to stimuli

Blood flows into the parietal lobe when you process complex information, and it flows away once you learn and absorb that information.

A 2018 review suggests that the parietal lobe may grow in size when you have depression, which could worsen symptoms of MDD.

The thalamus controls several types of sensory information, including:

  • emotional control
  • arousal
  • memory

According to a 2018 review, the thalamus may change shape and decrease in size with MDD present, which can impact your ability to regulate emotions.

The striatum plays a role in your ability to:

  • think
  • find motivation
  • control your mood

In addition, a 2018 review explains that the striatum may also play a role in your ability to control feelings of hatred toward yourself or others.

When you have MDD, the striatum shrinks. According to this review, a decreased striatum may contribute to suicidal thoughts and actions.

Chemical changes, as well as changes to your neurotransmitters, are both associated with MDD. Two of the more important neurotransmitters include serotonin and norepinephrine, which act as messengers between different areas of the brain.

Over time, stress and anxiety associated with MDD can cause changes to neurotransmission, including:

  • neurotransmitter release
  • metabolic breakdown
  • reuptake
  • receptor-mediated signaling in the postsynaptic neuron

These changes may make it harder for your brain to effectively transmit signals.

In addition to physical changes in brain structure and chemical levels, depression may affect your brain’s circuitry.

The various parts of your brain communicate using different connections, which are often called “circuits.” When these are disrupted, it can cause certain depression symptoms, such as impaired thinking and emotional responses, to worsen or develop.

The majority of changes and damage to the brain caused by untreated depression are not believed to be permanent, but more research is still needed.

When depression is effectively treated, most people commonly experience an improvement in symptoms, and their brains return to typical function and structure.

If you or a loved one think you have depression, consider seeking treatment with a doctor or mental health professional at the first signs and symptoms. Early intervention can stop depression symptoms from worsening and may help prevent changes to your brain.

Though depression may cause temporary changes to the structure and functions of your brain, you can potentially heal this damage.

Seeking depression treatment

Reaching out to a mental health professional or physician is an excellent first step in addressing depression.

Depression is a common mental health condition with treatment options for managing symptoms. Therapy and medication are often first-line treatments for depression and can help you start feeling better.

Treatment plans for depression often involve a combination of:

Finding a treatment plan that works for you can take time and effort. You may need to try multiple strategies before finding the best option for you.

Self-care for depression

Self-care steps at home can also help improve depression symptoms, including:

  • exercising regularly
  • sleeping consistently between 8 and 10 hours each night
  • eating nutritious foods, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats
  • addressing other health issues
  • practicing mindfulness or meditation
  • doing things you enjoy
  • spending time in nature

It’s important to keep in mind that while these tips may help, they are not meant as a substitute for formal treatment. You can use them in conjunction with treatment or as a way to see if you can lift your mood before getting formally diagnosed.

But if you don’t see any symptom improvement, you may want to consider reaching out for help.

If you are living with depression, you are not alone. Depression is a common mental health condition that affects roughly 1 in 15 adults per year and about 1 in 6 people at least once in their lifetime.

Although depression can affect the structure and functions of your brain, these changes aren‘t necessarily brain damage per se, and they can be reversed by treating depression symptoms.

Early treatment can play an important role in alleviating depression symptoms as well as preventing or reversing any damage or changes to your brain caused by depression.

Depression is a manageable mental health condition with several treatment options, including:

  • therapy
  • medication
  • self-care and lifestyle changes

Help is there for you when you need it.

If you’re ready to find help but don’t know where to begin, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) offers a free national search tool. You can also check out Psych Central’s guide to seeking mental health care.