By Ben Gruber
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. (Reuters) - Researchers at MIT's McGovern Institute are using the latest advances in brain imaging to identify children at high risk of depression before the debilitating and sometimes deadly disorder sets in.
According to the World Health Organization an estimated 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression. It's a serious mental disorder that affects every aspect of a person's life and in severe cases could lead to suicide.
The study involved two groups of children, one at high risk of depression due to family history and a control group with kids at low risk.
Kids from both groups were scanned to map the network pathways in their brains. The question was if the researchers could find differences in brain activity that would be an indicator for a higher risk of depression.
"They answer is there are very great differences. We saw differences that were striking in a number of circuits including those that change in depression, including those involved in feelings, other parts that are involved in thinking. The additional thing besides seeing these differences were that the differences were so strong child by child that that we were very close to perfect with being able to categorize from a brain scan itself whether a child was at risk or not," said John Gabrieli, a professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.
The goal going forward is to follow these children and see who among the high risk group goes on to develop depression, tracking changes in their brain function along the way .
"Obviously the children that go on to depression the more we can identify them well the more we are hopeful that we can get preventive treatments going. Not waiting for them to be suffering but helping them beforehand," said Gabrieli
"So we want to learn both to identify early children who are at true risk, help them before they struggle and learn from those that are resilient what is different about them because that might be a hint about how to help the children that are not resilient," he added.
The researchers say a better understanding of how depression affects the brain will ultimately lead to better treatment options for those that are most at risk.