USF heads up depression research

Many people are no strangers to depression.

“Most everyone has had at least some episodes in their life where they’ve felt a sad or depressed mood or very strongly disappointed at something that happened to them,” said Jonathan Rottenberg, assistant professor of psychology at USF. “In that sense, everyone can relate to this diagnosis.”

According to a USF press release, depression affects one in five people during the course of a lifetime. With all the pressures that weigh on college students — paying bills, studying for classes and building connections for a job after graduation — it’s no wonder that depression rates are increasing among college students.

“Rates of depression tend to be higher in students than in other parts of the adult population,” said Rottenberg. “Students are a high risk group because of their age. People commonly experience a first episode of depression in adolescence and early adulthood.”

Rottenberg and others are currently studying the relationship between depression and heart rate variability (HRV). Heart rate variability is the increase and decrease in the length of intervals between individual heartbeats.

“We’ve long known that the heart does not beat like a metronome,” said Kristen Salomon, psychology department collaborator, in a press release. “But only recently are we learning about the implications of this beat-to-beat variability in heart rate for physical health and for mental disorders like clinical depression.”

According to the press release, HRV is an important index of the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates primitive, automatic bodily functions such as digestion and sleep and acts as something of a counterpart to the sympathetic nervous system that controls the “fight or flight” instinct. In a healthy person, Rottenberg said, there would be more variability in the space between the heartbeats, while the HRV of a depressed person is monotonous.

“People think about heart rate variability,” Rottenberg said, “as something that’s facilitating people’s ability to be flexible, to engage with the environment. Depressed people are not very flexible.”

In one portion of their study, Rottenberg and his colleagues monitored the reactivity of depressed individuals as they watched different movies featuring different emotions. It was found that those who showed a lack of reactivity helped to predict who would or would not recover from depression when the participants were interviewed six to eight months later.

While Rottenberg’s research is not aimed at treating depression, he said that others are looking to use HRV as a potential application to treat depression.

“There are people who are actively investigating whether manipulating heart rate variability can help someone cope with stress, become less depressed,” he said.

To expand on their findings, Rottenberg and his colleagues will have a rolling recruitment of depressed and non-depressed people to get a larger sample of people who they hope will produce a larger number of people who will recover.

The depression study is ongoing and is open to people ages 18 to 60 and participants are paid. For more information, send an e-mail to or call (813) 974-8450.