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Study Finds that Mothers Are at Greater Risk of Developing Clinical Depression than their Peers

Depression and anxiety were at their peak during the UK lockdown in March 2020.

Depression and anxiety were at their peak during the UK lockdown in March 2020.

Depression may disrupt parents' capacity for emotional socialization, a process by which kids learn from their parents' reactions to their emotional responses.

According to a new study, children of mothers with clinical depression are at three times greater risk to develop depression themselves than their low-risk peers. The research was published in the journal, ‘Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.’ Researchers have long observed changes in brain activity associated with depression in adults, particularly in a brain area called the ventral striatum (VS), which is associated with motivation, pleasure, and goal-directed behaviours.

Similarly, several studies have shown striatal responses to rewarding experiences are blunted in adolescent children of depressed parents, which predicts later development of depression.

However, more recent work shows that these brain changes can emerge long before the teenage years when the risk for depression typically increases. For the current study, lead author Judith Morgan, PhD, at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, recruited 49 children aged 6 to 8 without a history of psychiatric illness.

Half the kids’ mothers had a history of clinical depression, and half had no psychiatric history. To measure reward-related brain activity, children played a video game in which they guessed which of two doors contained a hidden token while they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Depression may disrupt parents’ capacity for emotional socialization, a process by which kids learn from their parents’ reactions to their emotional responses. Positive socialization responses include acknowledgement, imitation, and elaboration, whereas negative or emotionally dampening parental responses may be dismissive, invalidating, or punitive.

Mothers participating in the study completed an extensive questionnaire designed to measure parental emotional socialization by presenting a dozen situational vignettes of children’s displays of positive emotions and collecting parents’ reactions to them.

Strikingly, children with a maternal history of depression were more likely to have reduced reward-related brain activity in the VS, but only if their mothers reported less enthusiastic and more dampening responses to their children’s positive emotions, the researchers found.

“In our study, mothers’ own history of depression by itself was not related to altered brain responses to reward in early school-age children,” said Dr Morgan.

“Instead, this history had an influence on children’s brain responses only in combination with mothers’ parenting behaviour, such as the ability to acknowledge, imitate, or elaborate on their child’s positive emotions,” he added.

“This is hopeful news as interventions geared at coaching parents to encourage positive emotions in their children may have a powerful impact on child reward-related development, especially for families of children who may be at greater risk because of a family history of depression,” Dr Morgan concluded.

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first published:April 19, 2022, 12:10 IST