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How your brain may have shielded you from depression after the 2016 election if you didn't like the result

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The authors were particularly interested in activity in two regions of the brain -- the nucleus accumbens, which is embedded deep in the brain; and the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain above the eyes. These regions have a strong connection to each other, and both are involved in what scientists call "reward circuitry."

"When something feels good, or you get social support, money, or candy, this part of the brain gets really excited," Galvan said.

Previous work in other labs had found that people who have more activation in these two areas of the brain have fewer symptoms of depression, the authors said. In addition, when these people get depressed they generally have better outcomes than people who do not have high levels of activation in these two regions.

"Basically, if you can get your reward system active, you can dampen feelings of distress," Galvan said.

However, nobody had ever tested whether these findings would hold true in response to political distress.

As it turned out, they did.

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In the new study, which took place within four months of the election, 23 percent of people in the distressed group reported feeling clinically depressed because of the results of the presidential race compared with just 5 percent of the control group.

Although the remaining 77 percent were just as distressed by the election results, they appeared to be protected from depression either by high activation in the brain's reward system or by a high level of family support, the authors found.

Oddly, having supportive friends was not correlated with exhibiting less-depressive symptoms.

The researchers suggest this might be because much of the distress around the results of the election came from historically marginalized groups who worried about increased discrimination.


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