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Researchers Uncover Surprising Link Between Body Temperature and Depression

New study may support heat-based treatment to stimulate self-cooling

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People with depression have higher body temperatures, a finding that supports nascent research suggesting a mental health benefit to lowering the temperatures of those with the disorder, a new research team that includes scientists at the University of California San Diego found.

The study, published on Feb. 5 in Scientific Reports, doesn’t indicate whether depression raises body temperature or a higher temperature causes depression. It’s also unknown whether the higher body temperature observed in people with depression reflects decreased ability to self-cool, increased generation of heat from metabolic processes, or a combination of both. 

“To our knowledge, this is the largest study to date to examine the association between body temperature, assessed using both self-report methods and wearable sensors, and depressive symptoms in a geographically broad sample,” said Ashley Mason, associate professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco Weill Institute for Neurosciences and the study’s lead author. “Given the climbing rates of depression in the U.S., we’re excited by the possibilities of a new avenue for treatment.”

Portrait of Benjamin Smarr
Benjamin Smarr is a faculty member in the Shu Chien-Gene Lay Department of Bioengineering and the Halicioglu Data Science Institute at UC San Diego. He is one of the study's senior authors. 

Mason at UCSF and the UC San Diego team, led by Benjamin Smarr, a bioengineering and data science faculty member, analyzed data from more than 20,000 international participants who wore an Oura Ring, a device that measures skin temperature, and also self-reported their body temperatures and depression symptoms daily. The seven-month study began in early 2020 and included data from 106 countries.

The results of the study showed that with each increasing level of depression symptom severity, participants had higher skin temperatures. The wearable device temperature data also showed a trend toward higher depression scores in people whose temperatures had less fluctuation throughout a 24-hour period, but this finding didn’t reach significance. 

The findings shed light on how a novel depression treatment method might work, said Mason, who is also a clinical psychologist at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Health. A small body of existing, causal studies has found that using hot tubs or saunas can reduce depression, possibly by triggering the body to self-cool, for example, through sweating.

 “Ironically, heating people up actually can lead to rebound body temperature lowering that lasts longer than simply cooling people down directly, as through an ice bath,” said Mason. “What if we can track the body temperature of people with depression to time heat-based treatments well?”

These study analyses used data from the TemPredict Study, a larger initiative that aims to analyze skin temperature data to detect various signals in human health, from fertility to the onset of COVID 19. The TemPredict Study brought together researchers from UC San Francisco and UC San Diego, among others. 

“My students and I were excited to help understand how temperature might be important to diagnosing depression,” said Smarr, a faculty member in the Shu Chien-Gene Lay Department of Bioengineering and the Halicioglu Data Science Institute at UC San Diego.  

Smarr's lab has also done research into daily rhythms and temperature regulation as part of women's health initiatives before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and since, and so Mason and Smarr’s collaboration was originally kindled by a shared interest in temperature regulation.   

This effort sponsored by the Government under Solicitation MTEC-20-12-Diagnostics-023.

The views and conclusions contained herein are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies or endorsements, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. Government.

Elevated body temperature is associated with depressive symptoms: results from the TemPredict study
Ashley Mason, Wendy Hartogensis, Frederick M. Hecht and Leena S. Pandya Osher Center for Integrative Health, University of California San Francisco
Benjamin L. Smarr, Patrick Kasl and Severine Soltani,  Shu Chien‑Gene Lay Department of Bioengineering, University of California San Diego
Benjamin L. Smarr and Frederick M. Hecht, Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, University of California San Diego
Abigail Green, Neurosciences Graduate Program, University of California San Diego
Stephan Dilchert, Department of Management, Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College, The City University of New York
Anoushka Chowdhary, Department of Psychology, The University of Arizona, Tucson
Chelsea J. Siwik, Department of Wellness and Preventative Medicine, Cleveland Clinic
Simmie L. Foster and Maren Nyer, Depression Clinical and Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital and Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
Christopher A. Lowry, Department of Integrative Physiology, University of Colorado Boulder
Charles L. Raison, Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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