Skip to main content

Structural Differences Seen in Brains of Children With a Depressed Parent

December 17, 2019

Having a parent with depression was associated with structural differences in the brains of 9- and 10-year-olds, according to a study published online in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

“Understanding differences in the brains of children with familial risk factors for depression may help to improve early identification of those at greatest risk for developing depression themselves, and lead to improved diagnosis and treatment,” said study lead author David Pagliaccio, PhD, assistant professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University, New York, New York.

Dr. Pagliaccio and colleagues analyzed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data from more than 7000 children in the National Institutes of Health’s Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study. Nearly a third of the children in the study were considered at high risk for depression because they had a parent with depression.

Scans Show Shared Brain Abnormalities With Mood, Anxiety Disorders

In children who were at high risk, the right putamen was smaller than in children with no parent history of depression, researchers found. The brain structure is associated with reward, motivation, and experiencing pleasure.

“These findings highlight a potential risk factor that may lead to the development of depressive disorders during a peak period of onset,” said senior author of the study Randy P. Auerbach, PhD, associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University.

“However, in our prior research, smaller putamen volumes also has been linked to anhedonia—a reduced ability to experience pleasure—which is implicated in depression, substance use, psychosis, and suicidal behaviors. Thus, it may be that smaller putamen volume is a transdiagnostic risk factor that may confer vulnerability to broad-based mental disorders.”

—Jolynn Tumolo


Pagliaccio D, Alqueza KL, Marsh R, Auerbach RP. Brain volume abnormalities in youth at high risk for depression: adolescent brain and cognitive development study. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2019 October 18;[Epub ahead of print].

Brain differences detected in children with depressed parents [press release]. New York, New York: Columbia University; December 5, 2019.

Back to Top