Best of 2023 Research Stories

As we bid farewell to 2023 and embrace the spirit of new beginnings, it seems fitting to compile a “best of” list. Reflecting on the insights gained throughout the year is rewarding, and amidst any concerns about the lack of investment in mental health research, it’s important not to overlook the successes. In 2023, significant strides were made in understanding the pandemic’s influence on mental health, alongside fresh revelations about the effects of air pollution, diet, and mindfulness on the brain. Without further ado, here are my picks.

Researchers will be working for decades to understand the impacts of the pandemic on mental health, but 2023 increased our present knowledge with these findings. 

Young People Got Hit Hard 

A Standford University study supported the existence of a particular toll on adolescents, comparing young people with their pre-pandemic peers and finding grave differences.  The adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression and greater internalizing problems. Their brains showed thinning of the cortex, an area that helps execute mental processes like planning and self-control.  

Another study found that people who contracted Covid in its ‘first wave’  were more likely than other sufferers to report depressive symptoms 13 months later. 

Proof of the Mind Body Connection

Obviously we know mental and physical health are connected: poor mental health is often correlated with common ailments.  Now we have more evidence from a study published in BMJ Mental Health that found seriously mentally ill (schizophrenia, bipolar) people twice as likely as their peers to suffer from multiple physical complaints.  

Hormonal Birth Control & Mental Health

Doctors have generally been careful about prescribing hormonal birth control to women with mental health histories because studies have shown these methods can negatively impact mood.  A new study observed an opposite effect, noting women taking the pill were less likely than peers to report symptoms of depression.  

It’s in the Air and All Around

Air pollution is being increasingly recognized as a mental health risk-factor.  Data remains relatively limited but a recent study showed correlation between long-term exposure to low levels of air pollution and increased rates of depression and anxiety.

Post-Partum is Genetic

We know disorders like depression and anxiety are partly genetic but less information exists on postpartum depression’s heritability.  This year, a UNC-led team of researchers found new evidence of PPD‘s genetic origins.   

Depression Breakthroughs

Antidepressants have been around since the 1950s but exactly how and why they work remains fairly shrouded in mystery.  A new study showed the drugs interacting with memory, reducing negative ones while also improving overall memory in a group of 18-35 year olds.

A review of thirteen similar studies showed that adults who participated in In-person mindfulness classes reported less symptoms of anxiety and depression for at least six months. 

More insight into the genetic roots of depression and anxiety came from a study showing Glycine, a common amino acid, responsible for issuing ‘slow down’ signals to the brain.  These signals caused increased mental health distress, identifying a brand new biological trigger.

Another team also uncovered genetic causality in depression, focusing on a gene called LHPP.  The study showed increased expression of LHPP in mice aggravated depressive symptoms, opening up some potential new avenues for addressing treatment resistant depression.

That’s all she wrote.  Happy New Year, everyone.