Can Brain Activity in Infants Predict Psychiatric Disorders?

Neuroimaging may predict risk for depressive and anxiety symptoms in children.

Posted Feb 26, 2018

Young children can demonstrate behaviors predictive of depressive and anxiety disorders. These behaviors correlate with activity in certain brain areas, including the amygdala, a region known to be involved in emotional regulation. It is possible to measure functional connectivity between the amygdala and other brain areas with functional neuroimaging, and recent advances allow studies to be conducted in non-sedated, resting or sleeping, newborn babies.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Cynthia Rogers and colleagues examined functional connectivity patterns between the amygdala and other brain regions in full-term infants during the first 4 days of life and in preterm infants when they reached full-term equivalent age. They were subsequently able to correlate connectivity patterns they observed in the infants with depressive and anxiety behaviors they assessed later when the children were 2 years old.

The investigators were able to address two important questions. First, did the patterns of functional connections between the amygdala and other brain regions that were present near the time of birth predict development of depressive or anxiety symptoms at 2 years of age? Second, are the functional connectivity patterns similar in preterm and full-term infants?

It turns out that even at the time of birth there are patterns of functional connections in the brain that correlate with later development of depressive and anxiety symptoms. Furthermore, the relationship of connectivity patterns involving the amygdala and depressive/anxiety symptoms is similar in full-term and preterm infants.

This study and others like it raise several important questions. Will it be possible to safely screen infants and determine their risk for developing psychiatric disorders? For infants determined to be at risk, are there therapeutic interventions that may decrease this risk? Preventative strategies will likely involve teaching parents certain types of interactive parenting skills, as is already being done in studies of high-risk infants by Joan Luby and others. 

These studies in very young children provide the greatest hope for developing prevention strategies for psychiatric conditions that start in children or young adults. If this happens, it would be a remarkable demonstration of how neuroscientific advancements can lead to direct health benefits and have a positive impact on individual and public health.

This column was written by Eugene Rubin MD, PhD and Charles Zorumski MD.

References

Rogers, C.E., Sylvester, C.M., Mintz, C., Kenley, J.K., Shimony, J.S., Barch, D.M., & Smyser, C.D. (2017). Neonatal amygdala functional connectivity at rest in healthy and preterm infants and early internalizing symptoms. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 56(2):157-166.