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Girls at Risk for Depression Respond Less to Reward

Girls at Risk for Depression Respond Less to Reward
Girls whose mothers suffer from depression appear to have impairments in the processing of reward and loss, which might predict future depression, suggests a new study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.Brain images revealed patterns of activation that indicate significant variations in reward functioning among girls with a family history of depression.

One characteristic of major depressive disorder is diminished pleasure or reward. For example, compared with people who are not depressed, individuals with the mood disorder react less to slides depicting pleasant scenes, funny movie clips, appealing drinks, and money prizes, according to background information in the article.

Previous research has found anomalies in reward processing in adolescents and adults with depression. But it wasn’t clear whether these problems occurred before or after the onset of depression. This small study showed that anomalies occur in young girls who haven’t experienced a depressive episode, but who have a high risk of the disorder.

Approximately 40% of children (both girls and boys) of depressed mothers will develop depression, state the researchers. Of note, investigators have also reported gender differences in the transmission and recurrence of depression.

In this study, thirteen 10 to 14 year-old girls whose mothers had recurrent depression were matched with girls of the same age without a family history of depression. To assess neural functioning, researchers asked the girls to play a game in which they could earn points toward a prize of their choosing. Players could win points, lose points, or keep their point level the same by responding to various cues to hit a target. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to take images of the brain.

Areas of the brain involved were the striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and insula. The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex appears to be involved in reinforcing past experiences to facilitate learning. Compared with low-risk girls, high-risk girls showed an increased activation in this area when receiving punishment. This suggests they may more easily integrate information about loss and punishment than reward and pleasure over time.

“Most important, we also document a prominent role of the insula as an index of normal and disordered reward functioning; this structure may be a promising candidate for a biological marker of risk for the development of a depressive disorder,” conclude the authors.

Future research is needed to determine if these characteristics go on to predict the onset of depression. Additional studies might also examine fathers’ depression.

In the meantime, a program that focuses on increasing ability to derive pleasure or reward from daily activities might be helpful, suggests one of the study authors in a news report.

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