fMRI Brain Scans May Help Diagnose Depression in Preschoolers

fMRI Brain Scans May Help Diagnose Depression in Preschoolers

Posted: July 8, 2013

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Brain scan studies of people from elementary school age right up through older adulthood have identified activity patterns associated with depression in a key brain region for emotional processing and regulating known as the amygdala. In a first-of-its-kind study of the preschool age group, a research team at Washington University of St. Louis (WUSTL) School of Medicine, including Brain & Behavior Research Foundation NARSAD Grantees Joan L. Luby, M.D. and Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D., used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study the amygdala activity of depressed four to six year olds. The study was published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

The researchers set out to make and compare highly-detailed images of brain activity in 23 non-medicated preschoolers with depression and 31 non-depressed peers. As has been done with other age groups, the children were shown pictures of peoples’ faces with happy, sad, fearful and neutral expressions. Keeping in mind that a fidgety preschooler can pose a challenge to making a crisp brain image, researchers did mock sessions with the children prior to the actual scan to give them a chance to acclimate to the experience.

The scans of preschoolers with depression showed much more activity (more blood flow) in the amygdala no matter what facial expression the child viewed. This is a contrast to findings in the non-depressed preschoolers and provides the earliest evidence yet of changes in brain function in young children with depression. The researchers say the findings could lead to ways to identify and treat depressed children earlier in the course of the illness, potentially preventing problems later in life.

Drs. Luby and Barch are early emotional development experts with an interest in the developmental trajectories of mental illness and causes, treatments and early intervention to allow for better outcomes. Joan L. Luby, M.D. is Professor of Psychiatry (Child) and Director, Early Emotional Development Program, WUSTL. Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Radiology, WUSTL and Center Director, The Conte Center for Neuroscience of Mental Disorders, a collaboration between Washington, Yale and Johns Hopkins universities.

Read the study announcement and listen to audio explaining the research from Washington University

Learn more about this research in this NY Times article

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