Why are cortical GABA neurons relevant to internal focus in depression? A cross-level model linking cellular, biochemical and neural network findings

Georg Franz Josef Northoff, Etienne L. Sibille

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Citations (Scopus)


Major depression is a complex and severe psychiatric disorder whose symptomatology encompasses a critical shift in awareness, especially in the balance from external to internal mental focus. This is reflected by unspecific somatic symptoms and the predominance of the own cognitions manifested in increased self-focus and rumination. We posit here that sufficient empirical data has accumulated to build a coherent biologic model that links these psychologic concepts and symptom dimensions to observed biochemical, cellular, regional and neural network deficits. Specifically, deficits in inhibitory γ-aminobutyric acid regulating excitatory cell input/output and local cell circuit processing of information in key brain regions may underlie the shift that is observed in depressed subjects in resting-state activities between the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This regional dysbalance translates at the network level in a dysbalance between default-mode and executive networks, which psychopathologically surfaces as a shift in focus from external to internal mental content and associated symptoms. We focus here on primary evidence at each of those levels and on putative mechanistic links between those levels. Apart from its implications for neuropsychiatric disorders, our model provides for the first time a set of hypotheses for cross-level mechanisms of how internal and external mental contents may be constituted and balanced in healthy subjects, and thus also contributes to the neuroscientific debate on the neural correlates of consciousness. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)966-977
Number of pages12
JournalMolecular Psychiatry
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • 4 aminobutyric acid
  • 4 aminobutyric acid receptor
  • anterior cingulate
  • cognition
  • default mode network
  • depression
  • executive function
  • GABAergic system
  • human
  • interneuron
  • mental function
  • negative feedback
  • nerve cell
  • nerve cell network
  • neuropathology
  • prefrontal cortex
  • priority journal
  • pyramidal nerve cell
  • Review
  • biological model
  • brain cortex
  • major depression
  • metabolism
  • nerve tract
  • pathophysiology
  • physiology
  • psychology
  • self concept
  • Cerebral Cortex
  • Depressive Disorder, Major
  • GABAergic Neurons
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Pathways
  • Self Concept


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