Early Childhood Depression Alters Brain Development, Study Shows

According to a new study by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, early childhood depression is a very real condition and can cause those who suffer from the problem to have brains that develop abnormally.

The topic of depression in children has not been taken seriously until the past few decades. People didn’t want to believe that children could become depressed, but thanks to the work of Dr. Joan Luby, the director of the Early Emotional Development Program at the Washington University School of Medicine, evidence is emerging that children as young as preschoolers can develop depression.

“Nobody believed preschoolers could get depressed,” said Luby. “People generally assumed children under the age of six were too developmentally immature to experience the core emotions of depression. I am not sure the zeitgeist has changed as dramatically is it probably should, given the data that’s available.”

On Wednesday, Luby’s most recent study was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry and showed that children who suffer from depression in preschool have changes to their brain that remain as they grow older. The researchers looked at a group of 193 children ages 3 to 6, 90 of whom had been diagnosed with a depression disorder.

The researchers followed the children for 11 years and completed brain scans on each of them. The first scans took place when the kids were between the ages of 6 and 8. The second were taken when they were between the ages of 12 and 15. A total of 116 kids received all of the scans as a part of the study.

“If we had only scanned them at one age or stage, we wouldn’t know whether these effects simply were present from birth or reflected an actual change in brain development,” said co-investigator Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D., head of Washington University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences. “By scanning them multiple times, we were able to see that the changes reflect an actual difference in brain maturation that emerges over the course of development.”

Luby and her team found that the depression caused the children’s cortical gray matter, which is the tissue that connects brain cells and carries signals between those cells, to be lower in volume and thinner in the cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for the processing of emotions.

“The early experience of depressive symptoms was the factor that predicted the alteration in gray matter development, even when we controlled for other things that predict that development, like socio-economic status,” said Luby.

The findings of the study are a vital tool for researchers and doctors to better understand early childhood depression and how it will affect that child as he/she continues to grow and develop.

“What is noteworthy about these findings is that we are able to see how a life experience — such as an episode of depression — can change the brain’s anatomy,” Luby continued. “Traditionally, we have thought about the brain as an organ that develops in a predetermined way, but our research is showing that actual experience — including negative moods, exposure to poverty, and a lack of parental support and nurturing — have a material impact on brain growth and development.”

Luby and Barch are planning to conduct another study on even younger children to determine if depression can cause abnormal gray​ matter even earlier than they thought.

“The experience of early childhood depression is not only uncomfortable for the child during those early years,” Luby said. “It also appears to have long-lasting effects on brain development and to make that child vulnerable to future problems. If we can intervene, however, the benefits might be just as long-lasting.”

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