Brain differences seen in depressed preschoolers

July 1, 2013 by Jim Dryden, Washington University School of Medicine
Brain differences seen in depressed preschoolers
Brain scans of preschoolers with depression revealed elevated activity in the amygdala (the small area in the red circle) when compared with scans of young children exhibiting no signs of depression. Credit: Washington University School of Medicine.

(Medical Xpress)—A key brain structure that regulates emotions works differently in preschoolers with depression compared with their healthy peers, according to new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The differences, measured using functional (fMRI), provide the earliest evidence yet of changes in in young with . The researchers say the findings could lead to ways to identify and treat depressed children earlier in the course of the illness, potentially preventing problems later in life.

"The findings really hammer home that these kids are suffering from a very real disorder that requires treatment," said lead author Michael S. Gaffrey, PhD. "We believe this study demonstrates that there are differences in the brains of these very young children and that they may mark the beginnings of a lifelong problem."

The study is published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Depressed preschoolers had elevated activity in the brain's amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons important in processing emotions. Earlier imaging studies identified similar changes in the amygdala region in adults, adolescents and older children with depression, but none had looked at preschoolers with depression.

Like older children and adults, kids as young as four display differences in brain function when they are depressed. Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine's early emotional development program used functional MRI scans to study activity in the brains of preschoolers with and without depression. Jim Dryden has the story… Credit: Washington University BioMed Radio

For the new study, scientists from Washington University's Early Emotional Development Program studied 54 children ages 4 to 6. Before the study began, 23 of those kids had been diagnosed with depression. The other 31 had not. None of the children in the study had taken antidepressant medication.

Although studies using fMRI to measure brain activity by monitoring blood flow have been used for years, this is the first time that such scans have been attempted in children this young with depression. Movements as small as a few millimeters can ruin fMRI data, so Gaffrey and his colleagues had the children participate in mock scans first. After practicing, the children in this study moved less than a millimeter on average during their actual scans.

While they were in the fMRI scanner during the study, the children looked at pictures of people whose facial expressions conveyed particular emotions. There were faces with happy, sad, fearful and neutral expressions.

"The amygdala region showed elevated activity when the depressed children viewed pictures of people's faces," said Gaffrey, an assistant professor of psychiatry. "We saw the same elevated activity, regardless of the type of faces the children were shown. So it wasn't that they reacted only to sad faces or to happy faces, but every face they saw aroused activity in the amygdala."

Looking at pictures of faces often is used in studies of adults and older children with depression to measure activity in the amygdala. But the observations in the depressed preschoolers were somewhat different than those previously seen in adults, where typically the amygdala responds more to negative expressions of emotion, such as sad or fearful faces, than to faces expressing happiness or no emotion.

In the preschoolers with depression, all facial expressions were associated with greater amygdala activity when compared with their healthy peers.

Gaffrey said it's possible depression affects the amygdala mainly by exaggerating what, in other children, is a normal amygdala response to both positive and negative of emotion. But more research will be needed to prove that. He does believe, however, that the amygdala's reaction to people's faces can be seen in a larger context.

"Not only did we find elevated amygdala activity during face viewing in children with depression, but that greater activity in the amygdala also was associated with parents reporting more sadness and emotion regulation difficulties in their children," Gaffrey said. "Taken together, that suggests we may be seeing an exaggeration of a normal developmental response in the and that, hopefully, with proper prevention or treatment, we may be able to get these kids back on track."

Explore further: Kids, especially boys, perceive sadness of depressed parents

More information: Gaffrey MS, Barch DM, Singer J, Shenoy R, Luby JL. Disrupted amygdala reactivity in depressed 4- to 6-year-old children. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry vol. 52 (7), pp. 737-746, July 2013.

Related Stories

Kids, especially boys, perceive sadness of depressed parents

May 17, 2013
Children of depressed parents pick up on their parents' sadness—whether mom or dad realizes their mood or not.

Study shows that insomnia may cause dysfunction in emotional brain circuitry

May 22, 2013
A new study provides neurobiological evidence for dysfunction in the neural circuitry underlying emotion regulation in people with insomnia, which may have implications for the risk relationship between insomnia and depression.

Overactive brain keeps autistic teens from adjusting to social situations

January 9, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—A new University of Michigan study finds that an overactive part of the brain hinders autistic teens from coping in unfamiliar social settings, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

Response and recovery in the brain may predict well-being

February 5, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—It has long been known that the part of the brain called the amygdala is responsible for recognition of a threat and knowing whether to fight or flee from the danger.

Fear: A justified response or faulty wiring?

June 4, 2013
Fear is one of the most primal feelings known to man and beast. As we develop in society and learn, fear is hard coded into our neural circuitry through the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped nuclei of neurons within the medial ...

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.