Stress Effects on the Developing Brain and Depression Risk
Hilary Blumberg, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Diagnostic Radiology, and the Child Study Center, and Director, Mood Disorders Research Program.
Before puberty, rates of depression for girls and boys are about the same. However, after puberty these rates diverge with depression becoming twice as common in women as in men. This bifurcation in rates is found globally, across countries and cultures. Pervasive stress during childhood and adolescent years is strongly associated with adult onset depression, particularly in women. Dr. Blumberg’s study examined the role of stress in the neurodevelopment of white matter, or the emotional circuitry, in the ventral prefrontal cortex of the brain to determine if adolescents exposed to severe stress were more likely to suffer effects in neurodevelopment that made them more vulnerable to depression.
Highlighted Study Findings
Dr. Blumberg had hypothesized that stress adversely affects development of these emotional circuitry connections in the brain and that these effects are more pronounced in girls than in boys. The findings in this pilot study provided evidence supporting this hypothesis. The imaging analyses found greater structural integrity decreases in white matter in adolescents exposed to childhood maltreatment or neglect than controls, with greater effects in the girls with histories of childhood maltreatment than in the boys. She plans to expand her research to study these findings in larger samples and in greater depth. This line of research has the potential to determine the biological underpinnings for the relationship between early developmental trauma and later adult development of depression, and the greater sensitivity to stress in girls may provide insight into why rates of depression may be higher in females than males.