The largest brain imaging study of children ever conducted in the United States has revealed structural differences in the brains of those whose parents have depression.
Depression is a common and debilitating mental health condition that typically arises during adolescence. While the causes of depression are complex, having a parent with depression is one of the biggest known risk factors. Studies have consistently shown that adolescent children of parents with depression are two to three times more likely to develop depression than those with no parental history of depression. However, the brain mechanisms that underlie this familial risk are unclear.
A new study, led by David Pagliaccio, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical neurobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, found structural differences in the brains of children at high risk for depression due to parental depressive history.
The study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
What the Study Found
The researchers analyzed brain images from over 7,000 children participating in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive development (ABCD) study, led by the NIH. About one-third of the children were in the high-risk group because they had a parent with depression.
In the high-risk children, the right putamen—a brain structure linked to reward, motivation, and the experience of pleasure—was smaller than in children with no parental history of depression.
What the Study Means
Randy P. Auerbach, Ph.D., associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and senior author of the study, notes, “These findings highlight a potential risk factor that may lead to the development of depressive disorders during a peak period of onset. However, in our prior research, smaller putamen volumes also has been linked to anhedonia—a reduced ability to experience pleasure—which is implicated in depression, substance use, psychosis, and suicidal behaviors. Thus, it may be that smaller putamen volume is a transdiagnostic risk factor that may confer vulnerability to broad-based mental disorders.”
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