Brain Differences Seen in Depressed Preschoolers
Seen in Depressed Preschoolers
Akey 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 magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), provide the earliest evidence yet of changes in brain function in young children with depression. 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.” 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. “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.” 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 facial expressions 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.