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Depression may be linked to higher body temperatures

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have discovered a link between depression and higher body temperatures, suggesting a potential new approach to treating the disorder. 

Study background 

“Depression has become a health crisis of epidemic proportions. Globally, the prevalence of major depressive disorder (MDD) has risen over the last several generations in countries across the world,” wrote the study authors. 

“The last decade has seen a particularly significant increase in depression in the United States, with prevalence rates increasing by 33% between 2013 and 2016, with the largest increase among youth and young adults.”

This is particularly concerning, the experts noted, because the costs of depression in terms of lost opportunities across a lifetime are likely to be highest in youth and young adulthood.

Body temperature and depression 

“Correlations between altered body temperature and depression have been reported in small samples; greater confidence in these associations would provide a rationale for further examining potential mechanisms of depression related to body temperature regulation,” said the researchers.

“We sought to test the hypotheses that greater depression symptom severity is associated with (1) higher body temperature, (2) smaller differences between body temperature when awake versus asleep, and (3) lower diurnal body temperature amplitude.”

Critical insights

The study, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, examined data from over 20,000 participants worldwide who wore devices to measure their body temperature and reported both their temperatures and depression symptoms daily over seven months starting in early 2020.

The findings indicate a correlation between increased depression symptom severity and higher body temperatures. Additionally, there was a tendency for individuals with higher depression scores to exhibit less fluctuation in their body temperatures throughout a 24-hour period, although this observation did not achieve statistical significance.

Study implications 

Lead author Ashley Mason, PhD, an associate professor of Psychiatry at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, commented on the implications of these findings for depression treatment.

“Ironically, heating people up actually can lead to rebound body temperature lowering that lasts longer than simply cooling people down directly, as through an ice bath,” Mason explained, suggesting that tracking the body temperature of individuals with depression could optimize the timing for heat-based treatments.

“To our knowledge, this is the largest study to date to examine the association between body temperature – assessed using both self-report methods and wearable sensors – and depressive symptoms in a geographically broad sample. Given the climbing rates of depression in the United States, we’re excited by the possibilities of a new avenue for treatment.”

Novel treatments for depression

“To develop novel treatments for depression it is important to identify mechanisms that contribute to the development and/or maintenance of depressive symptoms and that may be amenable to intervention,” wrote the researchers.

“Although depression is both biologically and behaviorally heterogeneous, an important first step in treatment development is often to identify physiologic signatures among individuals with major depressive disorder that are not present among those without MDD.” 

“Although no single biological or behavioral abnormality will characterize all individuals with major depressive disorder, the identification of an abnormality associated with MDD may open the door to identifying a relatively biologically homogeneous subgroup that demonstrates a larger treatment response to interventions that target the specific abnormality.”

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