Depression can have negative effects on the people who suffer from it, effects that are so far-reaching that they take a toll on their loved ones as well. While much progress has been made in recent years to lift the stigma of the disease in society’s eyes, researchers–though they have made progress–are still unsure what its root cause is. What is known for certain is that depression is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and that chronic depression is more common in women than men.
In an article on WebMD, Myrna Weissman, PhD, a researcher in depression and genetics, says a depressed mother “…is both a genetic and an environmental risk factor,” due to the transference of her genes and the traditionally close relationship between mother and child.
While researchers have known for some time that depression in parents is commonly passed on to the children, research in children has always been limited to long after childbirth. Now, a new MRI study has shown that the seeds of depression may also be planted within the womb.
Led by Dr. Anqi Qiu of the National University of Singapore, researchers set out to determine whether instances of depression during pregnancy had any effect on the development of the newborns’ amygdala. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system, and is well known as the brain site which processes memories and emotional reactions.
The researchers studied 157 pregnant women, each of whom completed a depression questionnaire in the 26th week of their term. Then, about two weeks after the babies had been born, the infants underwent MRI scans with interesting results: there was no discernible difference in the volume of the babies’ amygdalas, but the researchers noted a profoundly reduced structural connectivity in the right amygdala of the babies born to depressed mothers. Abnormal amygdala function is a key component of depression and anxiety, but until now has never been linked to prenatal development. But just as an expectant mother needs to exercise and eat nutritious meals, so too should she be striving to keep a positive outlook while her child develops.