• Germany's news in English

Depression might really suck the colour out of life, study finds

David Wroe · 23 Jul 2010, 13:35

Published: 23 Jul 2010 13:35 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

The researchers at the University of Freiburg found that electrical signals generated by light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye in response to contrasting shades in an image are weaker in depression sufferers than in healthy people.

In fact, the more depressed a person is, the less visual contrast they appear to experience, the researchers found, suggesting the world could actually appear dull and washed out in the minds of severely depressed people.

“It is quite an amazing finding,” University of Freiburg professor of psychiatry and study author Ludger Tebartz van Elst told The Local. “Feeling melancholic is often compared with darkness and grey. That could be just a literary tradition, but it might be there is some subconscious physical reality behind it.”

Professor van Elst and his team worked with 40 people who had previously been diagnosed as depressed and 40 healthy people. The subjects were shown screens of chequered dark grey and light grey squares which flipped back and forth – each square alternating between dark and light – 12 times per second.

As the scientists gradually increased the contrast between the dark and light squares, moving them closer to black and white, the electrical response in the retinas – the layers of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye – of the healthy patients was much stronger than in the depressed patients.

They found a “strong and significant correlation” between the “contrast gain” – the difference between lighter and darker shades – and the severity of depression, they reported in their paper. Intriguingly, the correlation persisted in depressed patients regardless of whether or not they were taking medication.

“If you open a photo in (the computer program) Photoshop and take out the contrast, then you still see the image, you can still make out all the objects, but the visual experience is very different,” Professor van Elst said. “I feel it’s very similar in depressed patients.”

The neurotransmitter dopamine is thought to play a role both in depression and also the signals generated by retina. This could explain the correlation, Professor van Elst said.

He stressed the team’s results needed to be confirmed by other studies. But if the findings prove reliable, contrast perception could prove a vital tool in diagnosing depression, he said. Until now, diagnosis has relied on interpretation by psychiatrists and patients’ responses to questionnaires.

Crucially, it could help doctors quickly tell what type of depression a patient is suffering from – such as bipolar or monopolar depression – and treat them accordingly. Such distinctions currently can take months or years.

The study could also prove highly valuable to the development of drugs to combat depression, Professor van Elst said. All drugs are first tested on animals but diagnosing degrees of depression in mice is clearly a challenge. A more reliable diagnosis – assuming animals’ retinal signals respond the same way – could make drug testing on animals easier.

Story continues below…

Next, Professor van Elst and his team, which is an unusual collaboration between psychiatrists and ophthalmologists, plan to study the reactions to blue and yellow contrast and also to find out whether the world starts to look brighter as depressed patients get better.

Their current study is published in the latest issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry.

In an accompanying commentary, the journal’s editor, Dr John Krystal, wrote: "These data highlight the profound ways that depression alters one's experience of the world. The poet William Cowper said that, 'Variety's the very spice of life,' yet when people are depressed, they are less able to perceive contrasts in the visual world. This loss would seem to make the world a less pleasurable place."

David Wroe (david.wroe@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

03:00 July 24, 2010 by Gretl
Apparently neither of you read the entire article. The amazing part is that it may be used as an impartial diagnostic test.
20:10 July 24, 2010 by Logic Guy
Well, if people didn't base contentment, which is real happiness, exclusively upon color, then they would never experience depression.

Happiness and the opposite, which is sadness and depression, are human concepts and therefore neither will ever be CONSISTENT. So why base your feelings on something that is incapable of taking you to the top, or the zenith?
08:43 July 25, 2010 by Prufrock2010
Forrest Gump --

Who said that people based contentment "exclusively" upon color? Where do you come up with these mindless pseudo-aphorisms?
Today's headlines
Five things not to miss at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA

From consulting a book doctor to immersing yourself in an author's world with the help of virtual reality, here are five things not to miss at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event.

Parents who don't get nursery spot for kid entitled to pay
Photo: DPA

The Federal Court of Justice (BGH) ruled on Thursday that parents whose children don't receive placements in nursery care are entitled to compensation.

Eurowings braces as cabin crew union proclaims strike
Photo: DPA

A union representing cabin crew for Lufthansa's budget airline Eurowings announced that strikes could take place at any time over the next two weeks, starting on Monday.

Mysterious German U-boat wreckage found off Scotland
Photo: ScottishPower

First World War U-boat "attacked by sea monster” thought to be found off Scottish coast.

Supermarket Edeka warns of exploding apple juice bottles
Photo: DPA

"Risk of injury" from "Gut und Günstig" sparkling apple juice bottles has forced Germany's largest supermarket to recall the product.

By wheelchair from Syria to Germany: teen's story of hope
Nujeen Mustafa. Photo: HarperCollins-William Collins Publicity/Private

She tackled the gruelling 2,000-kilometre migrant trail in a wheelchair, translating along the way for other refugees using English she learned from a US soap opera. Now this teen is living in Germany and hoping to inspire others with a newly published memoir.

Berlin Zoo to have a pair of pandas by next summer
A recently born panda pair at Vienna Zoo. Photo: DPA

The giant bamboo-eating bears will move into a brand new 5,000 square-metre enclosure in the capital's Zoologischer Garten.

Two new spider species discovered in Munich
Zoropsis spinimana. Photo: rankingranqueen / Wikimedia Commons

It's news every arachnophobe in Munich is no doubt thrilled to hear: two types of spider new to the region have been discovered in the Bavarian capital - and one of them bites!

After woman's body found in barrel, husband may walk free
Franziska S., who went missing 24 years ago. Photo: Hanover police.

A woman disappeared in Hanover 24 years ago, but no one reported her missing. Although her husband has now confessed to her murder, he still may not step foot in jail.

Two injured after army tank falls 50 metres in Alps
A Bundeswehr Puma tank. File photo: DPA

A Bundeswehr (German army) soldier has been severely injured after the tank he was riding in crashed 50 metres down an embankment after going off course in bad weather.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd