News Release 

Brain differences detected in children with depressed parents

Columbia University Irving Medical Center

The largest brain imaging study of children ever conducted in the United States has revealed structural differences in the brains of those whose parents have depression.

In Brief

Depression is a common and debilitating mental health condition that typically arises during adolescence. While the causes of depression are complex, having a parent with depression is one of the biggest known risk factors. Studies have consistently shown that adolescent children of parents with depression are two to three times more likely to develop depression than those with no parental history of depression. However, the brain mechanisms that underlie this familial risk are unclear.

A new study, led by David Pagliaccio, PhD, assistant professor of clinical neurobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, found structural differences in the brains of children at high risk for depression due to parental depressive history.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

What the Study Found

The researchers analyzed brain images from over 7,000 children participating in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive development (ABCD) study, led by the NIH. About one-third of the children were in the high-risk group because they had a parent with depression.

In the high-risk children, the right putamen--a brain structure linked to reward, motivation, and the experience of pleasure--was smaller than in children with no parental history of depression.

What the Study Means

Randy P. Auerbach, PhD, associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and senior author of the study, notes, "These findings highlight a potential risk factor that may lead to the development of depressive disorders during a peak period of onset. However, in our prior research, smaller putamen volumes also has been linked to anhedonia--a reduced ability to experience pleasure--which is implicated in depression, substance use, psychosis, and suicidal behaviors. Thus, it may be that smaller putamen volume is a transdiagnostic risk factor that may confer vulnerability to broad-based mental disorders."

Dr. Pagliaccio adds that, "Understanding differences in the brains of children with familial risk factors for depression may help to improve early identification of those at greatest risk for developing depression themselves, and lead to improved diagnosis and treatment. As children will be followed for a 10-year period during one of the greatest periods of risk, we have a unique opportunity to determine whether reduced putamen volumes are associated with depression specifically or mental disorders more generally."

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More Details

The paper is titled "Brain Volume Abnormalities in Youth at High Risk for Depression: Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study." Its findings were published online October 18, 2019 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Additional authors are Kira L. Alqueza, BA, Rachel Marsh, PhD.

The ABCD Study is supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and additional federal partners under award numbers U01DA041022, U01DA041028, U01DA041048, U01DA041089, U01DA041106, U01DA041117, U01DA041120, U01DA041134, U01DA041148, U01DA041156, U01DA041174, U24DA041123, and U24DA041147.

Columbia University Irving Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, preclinical, and clinical research; medical and health sciences education; and patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Columbia University Irving Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest faculty medical practices in the Northeast. For more information, visit cuimc.columbia.edu or columbiadoctors.org.

The Columbia University Department of Psychiatry is among the top ranked psychiatry departments in the nation and has contributed greatly to the understanding and treatment of brain disorders. Co-located at the New York State Psychiatric Institute on the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center campus in Washington Heights, the department enjoys a rich and productive collaborative relationship with physicians in various disciplines at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Columbia Psychiatry is home to distinguished clinicians and researchers noted for their clinical and research advances in the diagnosis and treatment of depression, suicide, schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and childhood psychiatric disorders.

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