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How Affective Neuroscience and Depression Relate

Originally posted September 18, 2016.

David Goss, Psy.D., in an article published in the March 2015 issue of Counseling Psychology Review, investigates how therapy can positively impact a depressed person’s brain biology.

Goss uses the research of Jaak Panksepp’s, Ph.D. about how brain biology and mood relates. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist and psychobiologist based at Washington State University. He coined the term “affective neuroscience,” which refers to how brain biology relates to emotion in both humans and mammals.

Dr. Panksepp’s research found that the older brain structures of the mammalian and human brain are similar. The older brain structures, or sub-cortical structures, are where emotional experiences are processed and emotional responses are produced.

The older brain is where emotion, memory and learning take place. The older brain structures are the brain stem, including an area called the periaqueductal (PAG) medical thalamus and hypothalamus and the limbic system which includes the amygdala, the hippocampus, basal ganglia, insular cortex and the cingulate cortex.

Panksepp’s research found three levels of brain processing: primary processes, secondary processes and tertiary processes. He found the ancestral brain manages primary and secondary processes, while the neocortex manages tertiary processes.

Primary processes are innate, basic emotional responses relating to the survival of the being. Secondary processes are learning and memory functions and tertiary processes are the cognitive executive functions, such as higher working memory, and emotional regulation and rumination.

Panskepp found that humans an mammals share seven basic emotional systems at the primary processing level: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF and PLAY.

All of thee emotional systems are impacted developmentally by the experiences of the person or animal in their early environment and their genetic disposition. For instance, as you can imagine, the Seeking system or the Fear System are quite differently developed in a predator or prey animal. A deer will have a different response than say, a lion in a given situation. So there are innate genetic influences.

And there are environmental influences differences. A child in a loving, nurturing home with lots of encouragement will so likely develop a strong Seeking system, whereas a child in an abusive home will most likely have a well developed Seeking system, keeping exploration and reward of exploration much to himself.

Dr. Goss reminds us of the concepts of the brain’s plasticity and of epigenesis. Current research shows that the brain’s neural networks have the capacity to change and grow over a lifetime. So new experiences can help stunted primary systems expand and grow. Epigenesis is the study of gene expression through environmental and social experiences. So, here, too, different experiences can encourage different individual outcomes, rather than a biology-is-destiny fatalistic approach.

Counseling can have an effect on the primary processing brain systems.

Depression can be looked at as the suppression of the primary Seeking system by an over-activation of the PANIC/GRIEF system.

The over-activation of the FEAR and/or PANIC/GRIEF system, from abuse, loss, trauma floods the hormonal/gland system with cortisol production which eventually depletes the brain of serotonin. You can read more about the hormonal/gland system here.

The Seeking system is the brain’s reward system. There are many ways to stimulate natural endogenous opioid production such as dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.

Through counseling, the therapeutic client/relationship bond can help develop and stimulate the oxytocin and dopamine based Seeking system. Community support systems can also help with this type of developmental effort.

In addition, working on and completing enjoyable and interesting tasks are ways to stimulate the Seeking system, which in turn, stimulates the release of positive endogenous neurohormones of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.

In other words, Goss says brain biology and emotion are basic and can be linked and modified using positive therapeutic approaches.

For other reading on brain biology, hormones and mood:

Part One: Pre-pregnancy: How Women’s Brain Biology, Hormones and Mood Relate

Part Two: Pregnancy and Birth: How Women’s Brain Biology, Hormones and Mood Relate

Part Three: Postpartum: How Women’s Brain Biology, Hormones and Mood Relate


Goss, D. (2015). The importance of incorporating neuroscientific knowledge into counseling psychology: An introduction to affective neuroscience. Counseling Psychology Review, 30(1), p. 52-63.

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