Depression affects all of us in different ways. Whether you have been depressed yourself, had a close loved one suffer from depression, or watched a friend struggle with it, depression hurts.

Did you know that young children can also suffer from clinical depression? A 2015 research study established that children as young as three years old can experience depression, and it was found that depression affects the long-term development of the brain.

The study was conducted in 2015 by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and it concluded that the brains of children who suffer from clinical depression as preschoolers develop differently than the brains of children who have not suffered depression.

Grey matter is the tissue in our brains that connects brain cells and carries signals between those cells and is part of the seeing, hearing, memory, decision-making and emotion processes. It was found that it was lower in volume and thinner in the cortex (where the brain processes emotions).

The research showed that life experiences such as depression, actually alters the brain’s anatomy in young children. Actual experience, including moods, exposure to poverty and a lack of parental care and support has an effect on the brain’s development and growth.

The study, which was published in JAMA Psychiatry in December 2015, built on top of previous research surrounding children and depression. The Child Psychiatry researchers studied 193 children, 90 of which had been diagnosed with depression as preschoolers. The study was conducted by performing clinical evaluations on the children at several points in their lives as they aged. In addition, MRI scans were conducted at 3 points in time as the child got older. The first scans were done when the children were around the ages of 6 to 8 years old, and the final 2 were taken when they were around 12 to 15 years of age. These scans allowed the research team to see how the brain development had changed. In total, 116 of the 193 children received all 3 MRI’s.

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Normally, as a child gets older, they develop more grey matter which helps us to process information. Then, around puberty, the amount of grey matter begins to decrease as the communication between the neurons gets more and more efficient and the brain eliminates redundant processes. This process of grey matter declining is called pruning. The findings of the children who had depression as preschoolers, showed that there was a much steeper drop-off of grey matter, due to the pruning process.

Furthermore, the steepness of the drop-off in the volume and thickness of brain tissue was correlated with the severity of depression. The more depressed a child was, the steeper the drop-off was in the grey matter neurons.

For future research, the team is planning to conduct brain scans on even younger children to learn whether depression causes pruning in the brain to begin earlier than normal. They will also look at whether early intervention might be able to shift the pathway of brain development so that kids who suffered from depression at a young age can revert back to a more normal and healthy development. This is an important part of further research as long-lasting effects on brain development could make the child more susceptible to problems in the future.

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