October 19, 2020

Depression and the brain-age gap

Older depressed adults show accelerated brain aging, according to a new study from Vanderbilt researchers, who suggest that the effects of depression may speed the decline in cognitive functions in older individuals.

by Sarah E. Glass

Machine-learning techniques analyzing structural MRI data can determine the brain’s biological age. A comparison of biological to chronological age, the brain-age gap, measures how much older or younger an individual’s brain appears when compared to his or her actual age. 

Reporting recently in the journal Translational Psychiatry, Warren Taylor, MD, MHSc, and colleagues used this method to investigate accelerated brain aging in two age groups of patients with major depressive disorder. 

They found the brain-age gap was significantly higher in depressed individuals over 60 years old compared to the never-depressed older population but did not differ between depressed and never-depressed individuals ages 20 to 50. 

The increased brain-age gap among depressed older individuals was associated with poorer working memory and executive function, meaning they had difficulty in remembering details and following directions. 

These findings suggest that older depressed adults exhibit accelerated brain aging. The effects of depression may contribute to brain aging and may accelerate the decline in cognitive functions in older individuals, the researchers concluded.

The research was supported by National Institutes of Health grants MH102246, MH099218, EB017230 and RR031634the American Heart Association and National Science Foundation.