Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky Demystifies Depression, Which, Like Diabetes, Is Rooted in Biology

We know that depression affects people from all walks of life. Rich. Poor. Celebs. Ordinary Joes. Young. Old. But, somehow after the death of Robin Williams, there's a renewed focus on depression, and my mind turned immediately to a lecture we featured on the site way back in 2009. The lecture is by Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford biologist, who has a talent for making scientific subjects publicly accessible. A recipient of the MacArthur genius grant, Sapolsky notes that depression --- currently the 4th greatest cause of disability worldwide, and soon the 2nd -- is deeply biological. Depression is rooted in biology, much as is, say, diabetes. As the lecture unfolds, you will see how depression changes the body. When depressed, our brains function differently while sleeping, our stress response goes way up 24/7, our biochemistry levels change, etc. You will see that biology is at work.

Sapolsky is one compelling teacher. So you might not want to miss his Stanford course, Introduction to Human Biology. It's equally worth your time. You can always find it housed in our collection 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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  • Michelle says:

    excellent – thank you for posting

  • James Bruce says:

    Some of the most gifted people in the world struggled with depression. We know of Robin Williams, but one of the most treasured impressionists in the world did when they had no medication of any sort. His name was Vincent Van Gogh!

  • Micky DuPree says:

    Obviously there’s a genetic predisposition to depression and bipolar disorder, but there’s an environmental dimension too. The modern world and its media have medicalized and personalized sociopolitical problems so as to relieve the powerful of responsibility for the effects of their decisions on others. Therefore you’re not depressed because your job was outsourced. You’re depressed because your biology is faulty.

  • Will says:

    A tremendously comprehensive over-view of the psycho-biology of Major Depression.

    I’m somewhat mystified however on one point; are you saying that only loss-of-weight and avoiding adequate nourishment is the key criteria for Major Depression? Or can overeating and obesity be criteria as well. I am a clinician and have see both considerable loss of weight AND considerable gain of weight presenting in sessions with my patients who suffer from MDD. Did I misunderstand or can you clarify this point.

    Thank you for your extraordinarily-honed lecture, Professor Sapolsky.

    Will

  • zapp says:

    what this article forgets to mention is that main cause for the biological effect of depression is non-biological, it’s social. Stress.

    Dr. Robert Sapolsky does however claim this, but this article doesn’t.

    Check out “Why Zebras Don’t Have Ulcers” by Sapolsky.
    Also “Stress – The Portrait of the killer”.

    Apart from individual and esoteric causes of stress (like artist worrying that his/her art is not “real enough” or alike), main cause of stress in majority of population is the unnatural life style we live today, fueled by consumerism and economical slavery.

  • steeleweed says:

    One might also remark that many people live in depressing circumstances. Chronic pain that can not be eliminated, poverty – both stressful and depressing.

  • sglover says:

    One might also remark that many people live in depressing circumstances. Chronic pain that can not be eliminated, poverty – both stressful and depressing.

    Yes, but I think Sapolsky touches on that when he discusses how unpredictability and loss of control are central features of stress. Surely one of the worst aspects of poverty — as bad as want itself? — is the vulnerability that comes with it.

    Anyway, this was really an excellent lecture. I’ve been very sceptical of the pill-centric approach that seems to define modern mental health treatment, but Dr. Sapolsky’s given me a more nuanced view.

  • Evelyn Roebuck says:

    I totally agree with you that the life style we live today is not natural for the human animal. I think this is due to overpopulation, and the specialization required of us to survive. An interesting study would be to overpopulate a colony of baboons and have them work for their food (by doing non food things…..like stacking blocks to get food) and see what happens.

  • Stuart says:

    We’re talking about Clinical Depression, not episodic. This is not caused by external events, but can be worsened.

  • Carlos A. Zuluaga says:

    Fantastic!

  • Bruce says:

    Interesting lecture by Mr. Sapolsky, but I don’t think bio-chemical reductionism nails it. If it’s helpful in procuring better funding commensurate with traditional physical disease, all well and good – but there are definite environmental factors at work also (as well as even more subtle influences that allude to the mind/brain problem). It’s been shown that meditation processes for anxiety/depression can modify brain chemistry/electrical activity, but nobody would suggest that this chemistry is the source of the meditative state. The instigator is the will of the individual, which is a symptom of consciousness. This irreducible principle of consciousness isn’t captured by the scientific biochemical method, which – although sincere in its efforts – continues to look for the music by progressive dismantling of the radio. There is a ‘ghost’ in the machine that can only be discovered by alternate methods of inquiry.

  • Laurel Rain says:

    As a survivor of long term abuse I would have to agree with your response about depression. While true that there may be biological markers or tendencies, the fact remains that many people have lived with or through atrocities that depress the spirit, which in opinion has nothing to do with biology.

  • Dominique says:

    I would like to be able to receive your posts. What doni need to do

  • Tyler says:

    I think many people here are missing a key distinction between being sad or depressed, and suffering from clinical major depressive disorder. Someone noted this above, but the very definition of MDD is that it is unremitting and largely independent of environmental circumstance. Many people suffer from the much more easily treated depression that can occur as a result of citcumstance, while others live in constant turmoil despite conventional indicators of societally accepted success/happiness.

    Obviously nearly all cases are in a balance of both cobtributing factors, but biochemical susceptibility is the main driver of successful coping and recovery. Biology is the always much more complex than it appears at the surface and is characterized by the changes from equilibrium states I’m both environment and biochemical processes.

  • AJ says:

    you are completely off. that is not depression. stress isn’t the main cause for depression. you don’t understand depression or know much about it if you are making that claim.

    i *assume* you haven’t experienced the hells of depression — it ain’t from stress, my friend. you can have the world and still be taken by the black.

  • Simeon says:

    The issue here though is when the 1 in 4 people suffer from depression at some point in their life statistic is touted, are we then suggesting that 1 in 4 people suffer from Major depression? If not, then, we are talking about simply depression.

    The problem with talking about Major depression is, once people use that term, everyone kind of shuts up, as it is assumed that Major depression is an actual, physical disease. It is not. The suggestion that someone suffers from Major depression because there is no obvious environmental cause, ignores the fact that the cause may be rooted in someones past, and not be obvious to any observer in the present.

    As of now, there is still no medical test of human biology that can determine whether someone is depressed. The diagnosis for major depression is still given only by observing the behaviour of a person.

    The insistence that there is such a thing as clinical depression comes from the medical world, where all things are reduced to their smallest biological components. In the psychoanalytical world, it is understood that mental illness is rooted in our relationship with our environment and the people we interact with. Having suffered mental distress for many years, which was largely alleviated through psychoanalysis, I tend to side with the latter view.

    To put it in more simple terms, when we are hungry, are we suffering from unbalanced chemicals in our body like insulin, or are we, in fact, suffering from a lack of food?

  • Ceyda says:

    Depression definitely leads to biological changes, but when it comes to the reasons i think it is both nature and nurture / ways of thinking and living. Otherwise its percentage in population would not be rising.

  • Karen Fox says:

    The understanding of the physical components is not abduction of responsibility but perhaps might be away to aleave some of the guilt and shame that often goes along with depression..
    Not everyone who loses their job gets depressed – some might be scared financially, others will be motivated to find something better,
    But for others, it might trigger depression. If you or someone close to you has never had it, it’s hard to understand how debilitating it can be. Getting out of bed can be a major feat. For some it could be situational but other it will lift when situation abates or maybe even when there is a plan to abate the situation. Yes lifestyle can make us unhappy and sick – just like it can influence a variety of health conditions. Some with depression have had no lifechanges and and like their life. They don’t understand why it’s there Because yesterday things were great and nothing new has happened. Like most medical conditions, depression is complex and a combination of biology and environment.

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