Depression: Us and other animals

Depression: Us and other animals

Our fifth public meeting was held as part of Newcastle’s Academic Health Partnership Patient Month, an initiative that NCMD is promoting. For this event, we broke out of our traditional university setting and moved into the ambient environs of the Secret Cinema room in the Town Wall pub. Complete with its own bar, the venue offered a relaxed, informal place where people could meet and chat over a drink before the two presentations began.

Kicking off the evening in his own, inimitable style, Hamish McAllister-Williams examined whether anti-depressants are best understood as biological or psychological treatments. He suggested that popular explanations of depression as being caused by low serotonin (also known as 5HT) are over simplistic. Rather, 5-HT helps us adapt to stressful situations. In some people this adaptation may not work as well, leading to depression. Stress causes a variety of changes in the body and brain. For example, a brain cell in someone who is stressed has far fewer nerve connections than a cell in someone who is not depressed. This also impacts on cognitive function and can lead to depressive behaviours. Essentially, while there are differences between antidepressants, they all help increase the function of 5HT systems in the brain. This helps increase an individual’s resilience to stress.

Psychologically this effect is seen by how people focus on emotions.  Hamish pointed out that depressed people tend to focus on negative stimuli rather than positive ones. For example, when shown a series of faces, each showing a sad, neutral and happy expression respectively, people with depression tend to focus their gaze more on the sad expression. Healthy people, by contrast, will focus more on the happy expression. Antidepressants, potentially through their action on 5-HT, help people focus more on positive stimuli. This links well with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) with is a form of talking therapy aimed at helping people with depression challenge their negative thinking. The complementary nature of medication and CBT may explain why a course of cognitive behavioural therapy in combination with anti-depressants is one of the most effective treatments for depression.

So in response to the question – are antidepressants biological or psychological treatments of depression, the answer is both.


Have you ever wondered if animals get depressed?

Behavioural scientist Dr Daniel Nettle then took centre stage with a summary of some of his work on mood disorders in other animals. He showed some amusing footage of a chimpanzee being trained for a cognitive test. The chimpanzee was shown a cone of light grey paper with a peanut underneath it. He was then shown a cone of dark grey paper, which had no peanuts underneath it. It doesn’t take long before he learns which colour cone to pick up to get the peanut. In the second stage of the experiment, he is shown a paper cone of a colour exactly between the dark and light grey cones. Confronted with this type of cone, it seems that a healthy chimpanzee will always pick it up – quickly – on the off-chance that, as it is similar to the light grey cone, it might contain a peanut. A depressed chimpanzee, however, will take markedly longer to pick up the cone, apparently believing it to be closer to the dark grey one and therefore empty. This is very similar to the ‘glass-half-full-or-half-empty’ analogy, and matches the behaviour of depressed people in focusing on sad stimuli more than positive ones.


Question: Do animals get depressed?  Answer: Yes.

Question: Can we treat them with CBT and/or anti-depressants?  Answer: Who knows? Why not tell us what you think on Facebook or Twitter!


A short video of the talks, with a funky backing track, is up on our YouTube channel. Take a look and see what you missed on:


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