In the study, the researchers found distinctive brain differences in children known to be at high risk because of family history of depression. The finding suggests that this type of scan could be used to identify children whose risk was previously unknown, allowing them to undergo treatment before developing depression.
The study also helps to answer a key question about the brain structures of depressed patients. Previous imaging studies have revealed two brain regions that often show abnormal activity in these patients: the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) and the amygdala. However, it was unclear if those differences caused depression or if the brain changed as the result of a depressive episode.
To address that issue, the researchers decided to scan brains of children who were not depressed, according to their scores on a commonly used diagnostic questionnaire, but had a parent who had suffered from the disorder. Such children are three times more likely to become depressed later in life, usually between the ages of 15 and 30.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers measured synchronization of activity between different brain regions. Synchronization patterns that emerge when a person is not performing any particular task allow scientists to determine which regions naturally communicate with each other.
The researchers identified several distinctive patterns in the at-risk children. The strongest of these links was between the sgACC and the default mode network -- a set of brain regions that is most active when the mind is unfocused. This abnormally high synchronization has also been seen in the brains of depressed adults.
The researchers also found hyperactive connections between the amygdala, which is important for processing emotion, and the inferior frontal gyrus, which is involved in language processing. Within areas of the frontal and parietal cortex, which are important for thinking and decision-making, they found lower than normal connectivity.