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Researchers have discovered that a key part of the brain which controls emotion and emotional response works differently in depressed children compared to healthy peers.
This finding is the earliest evidence yet of changes in brain function for young children with depression.
If depression can be caught earlier in these children, perhaps new treatments could curb the course of the illness, including the prevention of problems later in life.
“The findings really hammer home that these kids are suffering from a very real disorder that requires treatment,” explained 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.”
There was elevated activity in the amygdala of these young children. For this study, researchers from the Washington University’s Early Emotional Development Program studied 54 children aged 4 to 6 years. Twenty-three had been diagnosed with depression. None was on medication. During a fMRI, children looked at pictures of people whose facial expressions conveyed an array of emotion.
“The amygdala region showed elevated activity when the depressed children viewed pictures of people’s faces,” noted Gaffrey. “We saw the same elevated activity, regardless of the type of face the children were shown. So it wasn’t that they related not only to sad faces or to happy faces but every face they saw aroused activity in the amygdala.”
It may be that depression is exaggerating the emotional response of the children, no matter what the emotion is.
“Not only did we find elevated amygdala activity during face viewing in children with depression, but that greater activity in the amygdala also was associated with parents reporting more sadness and emotion regulation difficulties in their children,” Gaffrey continued. “Taken together, that suggest we may be seeing an exaggeration of a normal developmental response in the brain and that, hopefully, with proper prevention or treatment, we may be able to get these kids back on track.”
Source: National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Washington University School of Medicine
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