The 'resting-state hypothesis' of major depressive disorder-A translational subcortical-cortical framework for a system disorder

Georg Northoff, Christine Wiebking, Todd Feinberg, Jaak Panksepp

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

175 Scopus citations


Major depressive disorder (MDD) has traditionally been characterized by various psychological symptoms, involvement of diverse functional systems (e.g., somatic, affect, cognition, reward, etc.), and with progress in neuroscience, an increasing number of brain regions. This has led to the general assumption that MDD is a stress-responsive brain 'system disorder' where either one or several alterations infiltrate a large number of functional systems in the brain that control the organism's somatic, affective, and cognitive life. However, while the effects or consequences of the abnormal changes in the functional systems of, for instance affect, cognition or reward have been investigated extensively, the underlying core mechanism(s) underlying MDD remain unknown. Hypotheses are proliferating rapidly, though. Based on recent findings, we will entertain an abnormality in the resting-state activity in MDD to be a core feature. Based on both animal and human data, we hypothesize that abnormal resting-state activity levels may impact stimulus-induced neural activity in medially situated core systems for self-representation as well as external stimulus (especially stress, specifically separation distress) interactions. Moreover, due to nested hierarchy between subcortical and cortical regions, we assume 'highjacking' of higher cortical affective and cognitive functions by lower subcortical primary-process emotional systems. This may account for the predominance of negative affect in somatic and cognitive functional system operations with the consecutive generation of the diverse symptoms in MDD. We will here focus on the neuroanatomical and biochemical basis of resting-state abnormalities in MDD including their linkage to the diverse psychopathological symptoms in depression. However, our 'resting-state hypothesis' may go well beyond that by being sufficiently precise to be linked to genetic, social, immunological, and endocrine dimensions and hypotheses as well as to clinical dimensions like endophenotypes and various diagnostic-prognostic biomarkers. Taken together, our 'resting-state hypothesis' may be considered a first tentative framework for MDD that integrates translational data, the various dimensions, and subcortical-cortical systems while at the same time providing the link to the clinical level of symptoms, endophenotypes and biomarkers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1929-1945
Number of pages17
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Issue number9
StatePublished - Oct 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Major depressive disorder
  • Resting-state


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