March 1st, 2016

Brain imaging study looks at children at risk for depression

The brains of children at risk for depression are “substantially different” compared to the brains of children not at risk. That’s according to a new brain imaging study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The study, recently published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, looked at the brains of 27 children aged eight to 14 who are considered at risk for depression and 16 control participants – all of whom had no current symptoms or history of depression.

“What we were interested in is what’s different in the brains of children aged eight to 14 who are at relatively high risk on average for developing depression in later adolescence or adulthood,” said John Gabrieli, Ph.D., professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, who also has an appointment in McGovern Institute of Brain Research at MIT, and is a senior author of the study.

“They are at high risk by virtue of having a parent with depression. That moves up their risk for depression three- or four-fold compared to somebody who has no parent with depression.”

Researchers were aiming to understand what in the brain makes a person vulnerable to depression, Gabrieli said. “The more we understand that, the more we hope we can use that to promote well-targeted supports or interventions that would prevent or minimize the occurrence of depression altogether.”

The brains of children in this study were measured using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI).

“We measure the spontaneous brain activation that is going on when the brain is naturally at rest and that allows us see which parts of the brain are communicating with which other parts of the brain,” Gabrieli said. “Then, we can compare the functional relationship of different areas of the brain for children at risk and children not at risk.”

Researchers found at-risk children brains show differences in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, known to be atypical in depression and the amygdala, which is an important area for emotion and other areas, Gabrieli said.

“What we found were statistic significant differences between the two groups in terms of areas that are over connected or under connected. When we looked at those altogether, we could do a pretty good job of telling individually child by child who was in the at-risk group and who was not.”

Of course, researchers in the study knew which children were at risk, but Gabrieli pointed out that in the broader population, many people develop depression without being at risk for it.

“If we could have a brain measure that would help us identify those people that were at risk that would encourage early intervention.”

That’s important because once an individual has a first bout of severe clinical depression, he/she is at greater risk of having more bouts of depression later on.

“A big goal would be to avoid that first, sustained depression,” he said. “We also know that in many individuals, depression tends to occur in late adolescence and the early 20s. None of these children were depressed at any point yet. We are not seeing depression yet, we are seeing a brain vulnerability. We’re hoping that the better we identify such children, the more we can try benign treatments like CBT to steer these children away from depression.”

Researchers will continue to follow the children in this study to see who develops depression and who does not. They also want to see if early intervention changes brain patterns.

By Rivkela Brodsky

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