Freud was right: Depression IS linked to feelings of guilt
MRI brain scans show depressed people respond more strongly to guiltFirst scan that confirms Freud's theories of depression
06:31 GMT, 5 June 2012
MRI brain scans have proved Sigmund Freud right: guilt does play a key role in depression.
Freud famously wrote that depression was characterised by feelings of guilt or self-blame – and that was how it differed from 'normal' sadness.
Scientists have shown that the brains of people with depression respond differently to feelings of guilt – even after their symptoms have subsided.
Dr Sigmund Freud, who famously wrote that depression was characterised by feelings of guilt or self-blame – and that was how it differed from 'normal' sadness
Researchers at the University of Manchester found that the brain scans of people with a history of depression differed in the regions associated with guilt and knowledge of socially acceptable behaviour from individuals who never get depressed.
The study, published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, provides the first evidence of brain mechanisms to explain Freud's classical observation that exaggerated guilt and self-blame are key to understanding depression.
Lead researcher Dr Roland Zahn, of the University's School of Psychological Sciences, said: ‘Our research provides the first brain mechanism that could explain the classical observation by Freud that depression is distinguished from normal sadness by proneness to exaggerated feelings of guilt or self-blame.
‘The scans revealed that the people with a
history of depression did not 'couple' the brain regions associated
with guilt and knowledge of appropriate behaviour together as strongly as others,' say the MRC researchers
‘For the first time, we chart the regions of the brain that interact to link detailed knowledge about socially appropriate behaviour – the anterior temporal lobe – with feelings of guilt – the subgenual region of the brain – in people who are prone to depression.’
The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of a group of people after remission from major depression for more than a year, and a control group who have never had depression. Both groups were asked to imagine acting badly, for example being 'stingy' or 'bossy' towards their best friends. They then reported their feelings to the research team.
Dr Zahn, a MRC clinician scientist fellow, said: ‘The scans revealed that the people with a history of depression did not 'couple' the brain regions associated with guilt and knowledge of appropriate behaviour together as strongly as the never depressed control group do.
‘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 behaviour when feeling guilty, thereby extending guilt to things they are not responsible for and feeling guilty for everything.’
He said the research, part-funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), is important because it reveals brain mechanisms underlying specific symptoms of depression that may explain why some people react to stress with depression rather than aggression.
The research team is now investigating whether the results from the study can be used to predict depression risk after remission of a previous episode. If successful, this could provide the first fMRI marker of risk of future depression.