Research: Preschoolers’ Brain Scans Show Evidence Of Depression

How much do you remember of your preschool or kindergarten days?

How you respond to this question really depends quite a bit on how long ago you were of preschool age (say 4-6 years old). If you ask a friend or associate, “Do you remember your kindergarten days?” Their answers will vary. They may remember some kind of pleasant memory about their teacher or particular playmate who became a lifelong friend. It could be a person will remember a sad occasion from this time in their life, or they might be reminded of their preschool days by repeated mention of some interesting event that occurred at that time. Photos displayed throughout one’s home might also instill memories from a person’s early childhood.

Is it possible that adults can remember suffering from depression from the time they were preschoolers? It seems that often when adults are diagnosed with depression they will remark that they have had feelings of depression for as long as they can remember.

New study examines brain scans of preschoolers and finds evidence of depression

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, conducted a study to measure differences in brain function linked to depression.  The lead author is Michael S. Gaffrey, Ph.D. and the results of this study were originally published online on April 15, 2013, in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescents Psychiatry and now appear in print in the July 2013 issue of the journal (Volume 52, Issue 7): Disrupted Amygdala Reactivity in Depressed 4-to 6-Year-Old Children.

The study’s methods…

  • The scientists were from the Early Emotional Development Program at Washington University
  • Researchers examined brain activity and its relationships to emotion in 4- to 6-year-old children
  • 54 children were studied
  • Prior to the beginning of the study, 23 of the children had been diagnosed with depression
  • 31 of the children had not been diagnosed with depression
  • None of the children were currently taking or had have ever taken antidepressant medication

According to ScienceDaily:

“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 study’s results…

  • A right-lateralized pattern of elevated amygdala, thalamus, inferior frontal gyrus, and angular gyrus activity during face processing was found in depressed 4- to 6-year-olds. 
  • In addition, relationships between increased amygdala activity during face processing and disruptions in parent-reported emotion regulation and negative affect were found. 
  • No between-group differences specific to emotion face type were identified. 

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Interestingly, while this method of testing is also used when studying adults or older children with depression  “in previous studies brain activity increased mainly when adults saw faces that expressed negative emotions.”

Going forward…

Washington University researchers have been studying early childhood depression since the late 1980s and their abstract conclusion according to the study’s publication is:

“To our knowledge, this is the earliest evidence of alterations in functional brain activity in depression using fMRI. Results suggest that, similar to findings in older depressed groups, depression at this age is associated with disrupted amygdala functioning during face processing. The findings also raise the intriguing possibility that disrupted amygdala function is a depression-related biomarker that spans development. Additional studies will be needed to clarify whether the current findings are a precursor to or a consequence of very early childhood depression.”

Learning more about depression and its onset is always important.

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