Long-term Study with Children Identifies Potential Predictor for Depression, Stress-Related Mental Illness

Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D. - Brain and behavior research expert on depression
Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D.

Research conducted in the laboratory of Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Radiology at Washington University in St. Louis, and supported in part by her 2013 NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grant, has uncovered a potential biomarker for predicting risk for depression and other stress-related illnesses in children exposed to early life stress or trauma. The study, led by Hideo Suzuki, Ph.D., and also including former NARSAD Grantees Joan Luby, M.D. (2004) and Kelly N. Botteron, M.D. (2005), sought to identify what kind of lasting changes in brain function may be linked to early life stress and trauma.

For the study, a group of children between the ages of three and five years were given initial psychiatric evaluations, including an assessment of life events. Then in follow-up studies at ages seven to 12, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans were taken as the children responded to images of faces showing fearful, sad, happy or neutral emotions. The group of children included those who were depressed and stressful as well as healthy control subjects.
The results, published July 1st in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, showed that the children who had experienced life stress or trauma showed greater brain activation than did the healthy children in specific brain regions, but the pattern differed depending on whether it was life stress or trauma.  

All the children with a high degree of life stress showed greater activation responses to fearful, sad and happy faces in their amygdala and neighboring brain regions. The amygdala, part of the limbic or “primitive” brain, is a major center of emotion. Children with greater early trauma showed greater activity specific to sad faces but not to the other emotional faces. Children with depression and children with other psychiatric illnesses related to early stress showed responses in differing areas of the limbic system (the limbic system is a complex set of brain structures believed to be primarily responsible for emotional life).

Their findings, the authors state, “suggest that limbic hyperactivity may be a biomarker of early life stress and trauma in children and may have implications in the risk trajectory for depression and other stress-related disorders.” This new work may be providing a pathway for early diagnosis and intervention in stress-related psychiatric illness.

Read the abstract.