What is the relationship of the teenage brain to depression?
Depression, whether in a teenager or an adult, can be caused by any number of factors or triggers. What is common among all humans with regard to the relationship of depression to the brain is the production, or shortage of it, of a chemical called serotonin. Serotonin is the substance the brain, or, more specifically, the pineal gland at the base of the brain, produces to regulate mood, sleep and appetite, and which affects learning ability. Serotonin has also been found to be produced in other parts of the body, particularly in the digestive system and, most importantly, in blood platelets – all of which affects how the body responds to stress. The brain is not the main repository of the chemical/hormone, but it is the brain’s functions with which we are concerned.
A teenager is not a fully-formed adult. He or she is continuing to experience anatomical changes in virtually every component of the body, including the development of the brain. Combined with the unique, age-specific challenges confronting many teens, the functioning of the brain with respect to the production of serotonin is ground-zero for discussions of depression. The average teen is experiencing varying levels of uncertainty regarding his or her future, may be dealing with bullying or socialization problems, may be experiencing cosmetic issues like acne, is likely to be experiencing increased awareness of sexuality, and may be having difficulties with learning in school. Peer pressures, exposure to drugs and alcohol, the need to be competitive in sports, and the sudden and massive influence of social networking all contribute to the emotional challenges confronting teens, all of which can affect or be affected by their bodies’ serotonin production.
Serotonin acts as a neurotransmitter that connects parts of the body and regulates how they respond to different circumstances. Its relationship to depression, anxiety and other sensations lies in the body’s reaction to an undersupply of serotonin under circumstances of extreme stress or anxiety. A “shock to the system,” such as a sudden revelation of disturbing information, is the body’s response to a shortage of the chemical, serotonin, needed to regulate mood, appetite, ability to learn, and so on. The depression that results is a direct product of this sudden absence of balance in the hormonal or chemical composition of the teenager’s body. As serotonin is present in the central nervous system, intestinal lining, and blood platelets, the effects of depression caused by a serotonin shortage affects an individual’s ability to cope, his or her desire for food, and even his or her immune system – a major responsibility of blood platelets.
Physicians treating people suffering from depression often prescribe what are called “selective serotonin uptake inhibitors,” which act to bring the body’s production of serotonin back into balance. These medications help regulate the body's production and distribution of serotonin, but can have side-effects and should be accompanied by therapy.