Depression is a relatively common neurological condition. It may occur on its own (as an episode of major depressive disorder or MDD) or it may occur during the course of another chronic neurological illness such as stroke. It is important that depression be recognized and treated since studies have shown that it increases the morbidity and mortality associated with these conditions.

Sometimes it is difficult to weed out which symptoms are due to depression and which due to the organic brain (neurological) condition. Patients who have fronto-temporal dementia (Pick’s disease), Parkinson’s disease, frontal lobe strokes may look depressed. They are akinetic (do not move spontaneously), have mask like emotionless faces and do not talk readily (abulia). On the first glance it may seem they have depression and not an organic neurological condition.

The point I am making is that depression may mask an underlying neurological condition like dementia or a frontal lobe tumor. The reverse is also true, people who have neurodegenerative conditions may have superimposed depression. Upon treating the depression they feel much better and may improve in caregivers rating scales.

The diagnosis of depression is essentially a clinical one. There are certain clinical features which if present for a sufficient length of time usually 2 weeks suffice to make a clinical diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD). These features include what is called anhedonia (loss of pleasure in day to day activities), depressed mood ( in children it may present as irritability), weight loss or weight gain, insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping more than usual), changes in behavior and personality, feeling tired and fatigued, feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness and thoughts of death or sucide.

In a clear cut case no other investigations are warranted but like I stated earlier, at times some organic neurological conditions can present as depression. So to rule out secondary causes of depression, your doctor may order a MRI brain and tests like thyroid function tests (to check if your thyroid hormones are within the normal range–this is usually a simple blood test).

Treatment of depression: Treatment of depresion when it presents along or during the course of a neurodegenerative condition like dementia and Parkinson’s disease is essentially the same as treatment of idiopathic depression (depression which occurs without any organic cause). It involves using drugs. The most commonly prescribed drugs are those which belong to two classes:

1) Tricyclic antidepressants–drugs which belong to this class include medications like Elavil (amitriptyline) and  nortriptyline.

2) Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)–drugs include Prozac (fluoxetine) and Paxil (paroxetine) among numerous others.

If a neurological condition is responsible for the depressive symptomatology. example a frontal lobe tumor then removal of that tumor or treatment of the underlying neurological condition is needed. Other treatments that may be attempted include CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).

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