Researchers have found the key differences between a group of people distressed by the 2016 presidential election results and those who didn’t experience depression even though they were annoyed by the results.
According to UCLA psychologists, people who had no symptoms of depression had either strong family support or heightened activity in two key regions of the brain’s reward system: the nucleus accumbens and the medial prefrontal cortex.
Researchers evaluated 60 people from Los Angeles in two groups and conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans at UCLA’s Staglin Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. The first group (the “affected” group) had 40 participants who were disturbed by the presidential election and thought they would be personally harmed by Donald Trump’s presidency. A second, control group consisted of 20 people who thought they would not be affected much by the election result.
During the course of the study researchers asked participants if thinking about the election result caused physical symptoms, such as nausea or a racing heart, and if thoughts of the election negatively affected their sleep, appetite, concentration and moods. All participants reported whether they were disturbed by the election result, whether they felt depressed in the previous week and if so, to what extent, and how much social support they receive from family and friends.
In the first group, 23 percent of those participants reported at least moderate depression, which was related to distress about the election result. The remaining 77 percent did not and were protected by either heightened activity in the brain’s reward system or a high level of family support, the researchers report. In the control group, depression symptoms were not linked to the election result.
The nucleus accumbens responds to rewards, such as winning money and receiving dessert, and helps to protect people from psychiatric symptoms, as well as from depression, previous research has shown. People who deal with depression seem to have a harder time activating this region, even during what would normally be rewarding activities, said Galván, who holds the UCLA Jeffrey and Wenzel Term Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience. The medial prefrontal cortex is active when people think of others and how they fit in with them.
The researchers studied how active the reward circuitry of their brains was when anticipating and receiving money to learn whether there were differences between the two groups in the key brain regions. In one part of the study, all participants were told they could earn money, which often activates the regions of the brain’s reward system. While they were in the scanner, the participants looked at computer monitors and had to respond quickly to a prompt by pushing a button. Sometimes they could win $5 or lose $5; other times they could win or lose 20 cents. The participants completed 100 trials in 11 minutes and were told immediately after each trial whether they won or lost money.
Participants who felt distress from the election were depressed only if they had little family support and a low response to reward in these two regions. The researchers found that support from family, but not support from friends, shielded them from symptoms of depression.
About half the participants had heightened brain activity in the two regions and high connectivity between the two regions.
It’s unclear whether people can do something to boost activity of these key brain regions, especially as they age and their ability to heighten activity in these reward regions weakens, researchers said.
Every three months, the researchers have brought back the participants for further study, which includes asking them how closely they are following the news and how distressed they are feeling.