A new brain imaging study from Boston researchers may some day lead to method to identify children at high risk of developing depression later in life.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard Medical School researchers found distinctive brain differences in children known to be at high risk because of family history of depression.
The finding suggests that this type of scan could be used to identify children whose risk was previously unknown, allowing them to undergo treatment before developing depression, says John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT.
“We’d like to develop the tools to be able to identify people at true risk, independent of why they got there, with the ultimate goal of maybe intervening early and not waiting for depression to strike the person,” says Gabrieli, an author of the study.
The study appears in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Researchers explain that early intervention is important because once a person suffers from an episode of depression, they become more likely to have another. “If you can avoid that first bout, maybe it would put the person on a different trajectory,” says Gabrieli.
The paper’s lead author is Xiaoqian Chai and the senior author is Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, both associated with MITs McGovern Institute.
The study also helps to answer a key question about the brain structures of depressed patients. Previous imaging studies have revealed two brain regions that often show abnormal activity in these patients: the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) and the amygdala.
However, in these studies it was unclear if the differences caused depression or if the brain changed as the result of a depressive episode.
To address that issue, the researchers decided to scan brains of children who were not depressed, according to their scores on a commonly used diagnostic questionnaire, but had a parent who had suffered from the disorder.
Historically, such children are three times more likely to become depressed later in life, usually between the ages of 15 and 30.
Gabrieli and colleagues studied 27 high-risk children, ranging in age from eight to 14, and compared them with a group of 16 children with no known family history of depression.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers measured synchronization of activity between different brain regions. Synchronization patterns that emerge when a person is not performing any particular task allow scientists to determine which regions naturally communicate with each other.
The researchers identified several distinctive patterns in the at-risk children. The strongest of these links was between the sgACC and the default mode network — a set of brain regions that is most active when the mind is unfocused. The finding is important as abnormally high synchronization has also been seen in the brains of depressed adults.
The researchers also found hyperactive connections between the amygdala, which is important for processing emotion, and the inferior frontal gyrus, which is involved in language processing. Normal connectivity was found within areas of the frontal and parietal cortex — brain regions important for thinking and decision-making.
The research is ongoing as the MIT team is continuing to track the at-risk children. They plan to investigate whether early treatment might prevent episodes of depression and also hope to study how some children who are at high risk manage to avoid the disorder without treatment.