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Compassion May Protect Against Depression

Update Date: Apr 24, 2014 01:59 PM EDT

Compassion may help guard adolescents from depression, according to a new study.

New research found that 15- and 16-year-olds who feel like giving is more pleasurable than getting are less likely to become depressed.

Researchers looked at activity of the ventral striatum, a brain region that controls feelings of pleasure in response to rewards.  Past studies reveal that the ventral striatum activity tends to be more pronounced in adolescence. Researchers said the findings suggest that people at this age experience the pleasure of rewards more intensely than their younger or older counterparts. Lead researcher Eva Telzer of the University of Illinois said this makes sense, as people are significantly more likely to take risks during adolescent years.

"There's this trend where from childhood to adolescence, morbidity and mortality rates increase 200 to 300 percent, and it's almost entirely due to these preventable risk-taking behaviors," Telzer said, adding that depressive symptoms also increase during adolescence.

Researchers measured the activity in participants' ventral striatum who engaged in tasks that involved either giving money to others, keeping the money or making risky financial decisions in the hope of earning a reward.

Participants' depressive symptoms were measured before and after the study.

The findings revealed that activity in the ventral striatum predicts future depression.

"If they show higher levels of reward activation in the ventral striatum in the context of the risk-taking task, they show increases in depressive symptoms over time," said Telzer, who also is a professor in the Beckman Institute at Illinois. "And if they show higher reward activation in the pro-social context, they show declines in depression."

"This study suggests that if we can somehow redirect adolescents away from risk-taking or self-centered rewards and toward engaging in these more pro-social behaviors, then perhaps that can have a positive impact on their well-being over time," she added.

"What's exciting about this is that the very same area of the brain can predict both detriments to well-being and protection of well-being," Telzer concluded. "It depends on the context in which it's happening."

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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