A scientist at The University of Texas at Dallas recently led an imaging study to identify how certain risk factors in early childhood might lead to depression and anxiety in early adulthood.
This study, which was recently published in JAMA Psychiatry, followed a total of 165 people from infancy until the age of 26.
The findings of this study suggested children who responded abnormally to potential rewards in childhood are more likely to suffer from depression later in life.
“The findings highlight different mechanisms in the brain and relate them to who is at greater risk for developing different mental health issues,” said co-author Dr. Alva Tang, an assistant professor of psychology in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “These results could inform the development of prevention-oriented treatments tailored to the individual.”
Newborns have distinct reactions as they navigate through new objects, people, and situations. Some react more positively without fear, while others respond to new environments with caution and avoidance. The study labels this behavior as uninhibited versus inhibited behavior.
“We know that inhibited children are more likely to have anxiety disorders later, particularly social anxiety, that begins in late childhood to adolescence,” Tang said. “Less has been known about depression, which generally has a later onset, in young adulthood. But we do know that people who have had an anxiety disorder are 50% to 60% more likely to have depression later in life, so inhibited children should have a higher risk for depression as well.”
Tang’s research is particularly unique, given the length of time the patients were studied.
“To show any relation with increases in depressive symptoms over time, we have to follow subjects for decades because full-blown syndromes usually do not emerge until young adulthood,” she said.
Childhood inhibition is related to depression and anxiety symptoms in adulthood
After observing the patients as young children, they were labeled as either inhibited or uninhibited. Next as adolescents, they underwent functional MRIs to measure their brains’ reaction to anticipating rewards – in this case, they each completed a task trying to win money.
“We looked at the ventral striatum, a brain region well studied in terms of understanding depression in adults, to see if it’s tied to maladaptive processing in the reward centers of the brain,” Tang said.
Researchers found that inhibited children at 14-24 months of age had worsening depressive symptoms from ages 15 to 26. They also showed blunted activity in the ventral striatum in reaction to potential monetary rewards. Researchers concluded there was no similar association with anxiety.
“We found that behavioral inhibition was related to worsening depressive symptoms into adulthood. This supports the assertion that this temperament shows a stronger relation to developing anxiety in adolescence, but in adulthood, it is tied more strongly to depression. However, not all inhibited children develop anxiety or depression,” Tang said. “It was particularly the inhibited children who showed blunted striatal activity who were more likely to become more depressed in young adulthood.”
If you think your child is showing signs of social anxiety or inhibition, interventions meant to improve their cognitive skills do exist. The goal of these interventions is to help them create new healthy behavioral habits through positive experiences.
“[These interventions] might in turn reduce the likelihood of developing depression that originates from being socially disengaged or missing out on opportunities for positive experiences,” she said.
Anxiety and depression are extremely complex conditions that stem from a multitude of factors – genetic, environment, and others, Tang said.
“Here, we show strong evidence that both early temperamental risk factors and maladaptive neurocognitive processing of rewards are involved in contributing to the development of depression.”