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Brain scans of babies can find depression, anxiety

Early predictors of anxiety and depression may be evident in the brain even at birth. A research team analyzed brain scans of newborns and found that the strength and pattern of connections between certain brain regions predicted the likelihood of developing excessive sadness, shyness, nervousness, or separation anxiety by age two.

Why this matters: These sorts of symptoms have been linked to clinical depression and anxiety disorders in older children and adults.

"We have found that already at birth, brain connections may be responsible for the development of problems later in life," said Cynthia Rogers, an assistant professor of child psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Rogers and the research team didn't set out to discover these symptoms that might serve as predictors for clinical depression later in life. At first, they just wanted to compare brain activity in babies born prematurely and those born full-term. They ran MRI scans for full-term newborns and 57 premature infants born at least 10 weeks early.

What they found was that healthy, full-term babies had patterns of connectivity between the amygdala and other regions of the brain that were similar to the patterns previous studies had indicated in adults. Those connections were weaker and decreased in premature infants.

They then studied subsets of the babies when they turned two years old to look for early symptoms of anxiety and depression. By comparing the two – scans of newborn brains and later scans of a subset of these babies at the age of two – they were able to determine symptoms that might be predictors of either clinical depression or anxiety disorders later in life.

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