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.
For the study, researchers analyzed brain images from more than 7,000 children participating in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive development (ABCD) study, led by the National Institutes of Health. 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, the researchers discovered.
“These findings highlight a potential risk factor that may lead to the development of depressive disorders during a peak period of onset,” said Randy P. Auerbach, Ph.D., an associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and senior author of the study.
“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.”
“Understanding differences in the brains of children with familial risk factors for depression may help to improve early identification of those at greatest risk for developing depression themselves, and lead to improved diagnosis and treatment,” added David Pagliaccio, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical neurobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, who led the study.
“As children will be followed for a 10-year period during one of the greatest periods of risk, we have a unique opportunity to determine whether reduced putamen volumes are associated with depression specifically or mental disorders more generally.”
The study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.