Brain differences detected in children with depressed parents

Summary: The right putamen, a brain area linked to reward, motivation, and feelings of pleasure, is smaller in children with a genetic risk factor for depression. Previous studies implicated reduced putamen volume with anhedonia, which is often associated with depression, suicidal behaviors, and psychosis.

Source: Columbia University

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.

Depression is a common and debilitating mental health condition that typically arises during adolescence. While the causes of depression are complex, having a parent with depression is one of the biggest known risk factors. Studies have consistently shown that adolescent children of parents with depression are two to three times more likely to develop depression than those with no parental history of depression. However, the brain mechanisms that underlie this familial risk are unclear.

A new study, led by David Pagliaccio, PhD, assistant professor of clinical neurobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, found structural differences in the brains of children at high risk for depression due to parental depressive history.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

What the Study Found

The researchers analyzed brain images from over 7,000 children participating in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive development (ABCD) study, led by the NIH. About one-third of the children were in the high-risk group because they had a parent with depression.

This shows brains built in sand
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 image is in the public domain.

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.

What the Study Means

Randy P. Auerbach, PhD, associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and senior author of the study, notes, “These findings highlight a potential risk factor that may lead to the development of depressive disorders during a peak period of onset. 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.”

Dr. Pagliaccio adds that “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. 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.”

Additional authors are Kira L. Alqueza, BA, Rachel Marsh, PhD.

Funding: The ABCD Study is supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and additional federal partners under award numbers U01DA041022, U01DA041028, U01DA041048, U01DA041089, U01DA041106, U01DA041117, U01DA041120, U01DA041134, U01DA041148, U01DA041156, U01DA041174, U24DA041123, and U24DA041147.

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Source:
Columbia University
Media Contacts:
Eian Kantor – Columbia University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Brain Volume Abnormalities in Youth at High Risk for Depression: Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study”. David Pagliaccio et al.
Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2019.09.032.

Abstract

Brain Volume Abnormalities in Youth at High Risk for Depression: Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study

Objective
Children of parents with depression are two to three times more likely to develop major depressive disorder than children without parental history; however, subcortical brain volume abnormalities characterizing major depressive disorder risk remain unclear. The Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study provides an opportunity to identify subcortical differences associated with parental depressive history.

Method
Structural magnetic resonance data were acquired from 9- and 10-year-old children (N = 11,876; release 1.1, n = 4,521; release 2.0.1, n = 7,355). Approximately one-third of the children had a parental depressive history, providing sufficient power to test differences in subcortical brain volume between low- and high-risk youths. Children from release 1.1 were examined as a discovery sample, and we sought to replicate effects in release 2.0.1. Secondary analyses tested group differences in the prevalence of depressive disorders and clarified whether subcortical brain differences were present in youths with a lifetime depressive disorder history.

Results
Parental depressive history was related to smaller right putamen volume in the discovery (release 1.1; Cohen’s d = −0.10) and replication (release 2.0.1; d = −0.10) samples. However, in release 1.1, this effect was driven by maternal depressive history (d = −0.14), whereas in release 2.0.1, paternal depressive history showed a stronger relationship with putamen volume (d = −0.09). Furthermore, high-risk children exhibited a near twofold greater occurrence of depressive disorders relative to low-risk youths (maternal history odds ratio =1.99; paternal history odds ratio = 1.45), but youths with a lifetime depressive history did not exhibit significant subcortical abnormalities.

Conclusion
A parental depressive history was associated with smaller putamen volume, which may affect reward learning processes that confer increased risk for major depressive disorder.

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