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Depressed Kids Respond Differently to Gifts

Depressed Kids Respond Differently to Gifts

For many kids (and adults), December is the best time of the year as we share presents and relish the excitement and pleasure of obtaining rewards.

For depressed children, however, the thrill of gift-giving and receiving is often not present. In a study of brain waves, scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis discovered a biological reason for this emotional suppression.

Previous research from the same group of scientists found that a reduced ability to experience joy is a key sign of clinical depression in young children. The findings in the new study could help explain the scientific underpinnings of the earlier discovery.

“These findings may show us how the brain processes emotions in young children with depression,” said senior investigator Joan L. Luby, MD, director of Washington University’s Early Emotional Development Program.

“The pleasure we derive from rewards — such as toys and gifts — motivates us to succeed and seek more rewards. Dampening the process early in development is a serious concern because it may carry over to how a person will approach rewarding tasks later in life.”

The new findings are published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

“A blunted response to reward frequently is seen in the brains of depressed adults and adolescents,” said first author Andrew C. Belden, Ph.D., an assistant professor of child psychiatry.

“In this study, we were interested in learning whether preschoolers also had that blunted response to reward, and in fact, the brains of children as young as four showed very similar responses. That’s consistent with other findings in that many neurobehavioral aspects of depression remain consistent throughout the lifespan.”

The research, involving 84 children, was conducted as part of a larger study of clinical depression in children ages three to seven. The principal investigators of that larger study, which includes therapy and functional brain scanning, are Luby and Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D., chair of Washington University’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences and the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine.

The children wore a device that resembles a shower cap but is hooked to wires that measure electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalogram machine (EEG). Then, the children played a computer game that involved choosing between two doors shown on the screen. Choosing one door won them points, but choosing the other resulted in a loss of points.

Researchers have tested this idea in adults and teens by allowing them to win cash. In this study, however, young children who picked the correct door enough times won a toy that they were able to pick from a basket of figures, balls and plush items they had been shown before the computer session began.

While the brains of clinically depressed children responded similarly to those of nondepressed children when points were lost, the response when the correct door was chosen was blunted.

“The EEG results showed that their brains did not react as robustly from the pleasurable event of choosing the correct door on the screen,” Belden said. “It was not that their brains somehow overreacted to making the wrong choice. The brains of both depressed and nondepressed children reacted the same way to making the wrong choice. The differences we observed were specific to the reward response.”

Luby and Belden next plan to see whether the blunted response to reward changes after treatment.

“It may or may not normalize,” said Luby. “But we suspect the reward response will improve.”

Luby and Belden said that when a very young child doesn’t seem to be excited by rewards, such as toys and gifts, it may be a sign that the child is depressed or prone to depression. If the condition persists, they suggest parents talk to a pediatrician.

“There are clear risk factors,” Luby explained.

Decreased ability to enjoy activities and play is a key sign. Kids who feel excessively guilty about wrongdoing and those who experience changes in sleep and appetite also may be at risk. If they’re persistently sad, irritable, or less motivated, those are markers that may indicate depression, even in kids as young as three or four, and we would recommend that parents get them evaluated.”

Source: University of Washington, St. Louis

Depressed Kids Respond Differently to Gifts

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2016). Depressed Kids Respond Differently to Gifts. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2016/12/16/depressed-kids-respond-differently-to-gifts/113928.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 16 Dec 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 16 Dec 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.