The public “deserve to know” that there is an overlooked subset of people who thrive after major depression

More research is needed into people who experience "high functioning after depression."

Depression is a chronic, recurrent, lifelong condition. Well, that's the current orthodox view – but it is overstated, argues a team of psychologists led by Jonathan Rottenberg at the University of South Florida. "A significant subset of people recover and thrive after depression, yet research on such individuals has been rare," they write in their recent paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science. They propose a definition for "high functioning after depression" (HFAD); argue that the advice given to people with depression need not be so gloomy; and lay out key areas for future research.


The "gloomy" view of depression is relatively recent, the researchers argue. Just a generation or two ago, conventional wisdom held that depression was the opposite – transient and self-limiting. "But what if neither the older orthodoxy nor the new view of depression fully captures the truth?", Rottenberg and his colleagues ask. "What if, instead, two variants of depression operate simultaneously – a grim chronically-recurring, lifelong variant, and a relatively benign, time-limited variant?"

Long-term studies certainly suggest that a substantial population of people are affected by a burdensome, recurrent form of the disorder. But Rottenberg's team cite three studies finding that an average of 40 to 50 per cent of people who suffer an episode of depression don't go on to experience another (for example, this study in Sweden) – but overall these individuals have been little studied. "This omission, and the field's lack of focus on good outcomes after depression more broadly, virtually guarantees an unduly pessimistic impression of depression's course", Rottenberg and co write – and this is an impression they would like to see changed.

HFAD has been overlooked in part, they argue, because researchers, influenced by the current view, have focused on finding factors associated with chronicity and recurrence. Also, people with recurrent depression are highly likely to be over-represented in depression studies simply because, when researchers put a call out for subjects with depression, these people are statistically more likely to be suffering at the time, and so to be recruited.

To be categorised as experiencing HFAD requires more than simply remitting or recovering from the symptoms of major depression for at least a year, Rottenberg and his colleagues add. An individual must also have achieved "high end-state functioning" – doing well at work and home and socially, and reporting "robust" wellbeing – feeling satisfied with life and enjoying high levels of self-acceptance, for instance.

With such powers of recovery, what leads people who exhibit HFAD to become depressed in the first place? "One hypothesis might be that HFAD represents a more psychosocial form of depression that is more likely to be precipitated by environmental adversity, such as death, a break up of a romantic relationship or a job loss," the team suggest.

Whether or not this is the case clearly needs exploring. And they point to other big questions. For instance: Are people who are HFAD more likely to have sought help while they were depressed? Does depression itself play a role in triggering the long-term improvement seen in HFAD? (Something similar has been proposed for trauma). Can we apply what is learnt about HFAD to enhance clinical interventions?

What does HFAD tell us about thriving after other mental disorders?

There are clearly a lot of questions. But here, at least, is a framework for finding potentially useful answers.

"One reason HFAD needs to be discussed," the researchers write, "is that it is part of the truth, which patients and the broader public are owed. It would be odd if an oncologist did not tell a cancer patient his or her chances of achieving lifetime remission. We submit that a depressed patient also deserves to know. The public deserves to know as well."

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

This article was originally published on BPS Research Digest. Read the original article.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.