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By measuring children’s brain waves, scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis discovered that clinically depressed kids react to rewards differently than non-depressed children do.
This finding supports the team’s earlier research that indicated a significant clue to childhood depression is the diminished ability to experience joy.
“The pleasure we derive from rewards - such as toys and gifts - motivates us to succeed and seek more rewards, said senior researcher Joan L. Luby, M.D. “Dampening the process early in development is a serious concern because it may carry over to how a person will approach rewarding tasks later in life.”
Since a reduced response to reward is often a feature of adult depression, the researchers wanted to know whether the brains of preschoolers reacted in a similar way. To find out, the investigators analyzed the brain response of 84 children who were part of a larger clinical depression study.
While wearing a device that measured their electrical brain activity, the participating children played a computer game requiring them to choose between two doors. By selecting the “right” door players won points, but they lost points when choosing the “wrong” door. Children who accrued enough points were allowed to select a prize from a basket of toys they’d been shown prior to playing.
When points were lost during the game, the brains of depressed and non-depressed children responded similarly; however, when the winning door was chosen, brain reaction in the depressed children was blunted. “It was not that their brains somehow overreacted to making the wrong choice,” said study author Andrew C. Belden, Ph.D. “The differences we observed were specific to the reward response.”
These results suggest that if a child does not demonstrate pleasure or excitement when receiving rewards or gifts, it may be a sign of underlying depression. Should this condition persist, parents are recommended to consult with a pediatrician.
Other indicators of early childhood depression that parents should be attentive to include changes in sleep and eating patterns, excessive feelings of guilt, extreme irritability, and lack of motivation.
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