by Contributing Author
Depression is a relatively modern illness – at least in clinical terms. The first use of the word in connection with what we would now call mental illness dates back to the seventeenth century: a work by English physician Richard Baker talked of ‘a depression of the spirits’ in 1665. But even this use was far removed from the highly specific use of the term today.
Prior to the late 20th century mental illness was often wildly misunderstood. From the four balanced humours of the ancient Greeks to the melancholia of Baker’s day it was often ascribed to disorders of the blood, to moral or religious failings or to a generic feebleness of mind. Today we have a more informed and enlightened appreciation of a condition that the World Health Organization estimates afflicts as many as 350 million sufferers worldwide.
The precise triggers for depression in any individual are notoriously difficult to predict. Indeed, there is much about the current world-wide epidemic which is only partially understood. Even the processes whereby selective serotonin reuptake inhibiting drugs such as Prozac ameliorate the condition are not wholly determined – scientists simply know that in around 40% of cases they do work.
Recent work in neuroscience has begun to unpick the mysterious operation of a condition that blights lives of an estimated 20%-25% of the US population in any given year. Professor Eva Redei, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, has developed a blood test that shows a physical marker of what has previously only been seen as an abstract, aphysical array of behavioural symptoms. Such a definitive, medical identifier represents a quantum leap forwards for sufferers of a condition that has, for thousands of years, been seen as a matter of personal weakness and which has consequently been the source of considerable stigma.
Elsewhere, Nobel prize winning neuroscientist Professor Susumu Tonegawa of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – himself a depression suffer – has recently shown that inserting light sensitive genetic material into the part of the brain storing positive memories can overcome depressive behaviour in rats.
Professor Tonegawa’s use of colour triggers harks back to a long standing tradition of chromatherapy, or colour therapy, in the treatment of mood disorders. In spiritual traditions this is described in terms of different chakras, or power centres distributed around the body. The claim is that different light frequencies convey different energy waves through the body and that these have their own curative effect. Drawing on the findings of Prof Tonegawa’s work the scientific community might point to a more visually triggered, psychological basis for any colour-derived mood enhancement. But in a field where talking non-invasive therapies are often as effective as any pharmacological intervention what works still carries as much currency as what is scientifically accounted for.
A long way to go
The range of suggested treatments to depression is extensive: psychotherapy and group therapy (talking therapies), self-help books, long baths, fish oil, friendship and exercise are all routinely discussed in the popular media.
The astonishing level of depression worldwide, and the no less striking number of suicides each year – 38, 000 in the US alone according to the charity Suicide Awareness Voices for Education – tells us that for all those supposed remedies we are still only just beginning to get to grips with our age-old ‘depression of the spirits’.
Professor Tonegawa’s son Satto took his own life in 2011. He was 18.
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