Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Brain Imaging May Identify Depression in Very Young Children


Functional magnetic brain imaging (fMRI) of preschool-age children appears to be useful in identifying early childhood depression, according to a study in the July Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine used fMRI to compare blood-flow activity in the amygdalae of 23 nonmedicated preschoolers with depression and 31 nondepressed peers. The children were shown pictures of peoples’ faces with happy, sad, fearful, and neutral expressions. Mock sessions were held with the children to help them get used to the fMRI.

The scans of preschoolers with depression showed much more blood flow in the amygdala no matter what facial expression the child viewed. This was in contrast to findings in the nondepressed preschoolers and provides the earliest evidence yet of changes in brain function in young children with depression. In addition, relationships between increased amygdala activity during face processing and disruptions in parent-reported emotion regulation and negative affect were found.

The researchers say the findings could lead to ways to identify and treat depressed children earlier, 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 Gaffrey, Ph.D., in a statement. “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.”

"This is a small but intriguing study," child psychiatrist and APA Treasurer David Fassler, M.D., told Psychiatric News. "The authors demonstrate significant alterations in functional brain activity in young children with depression.  More research will be needed before we can fully understand the implications of the findings.  However, if replicated, the results of this study may eventually enhance our ability to diagnose depression in very young children as early and accurately as possible."

An abstract of the study is online here. For more information about mental illness in children, see Psychiatric News here.

(Image: Gladskikh Tatiana/shutterstock.com)

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