We automatically assume babies are happy little lumps, cooing and pooping and snoozing. They don’t have a care in the world, as long as mom and her milk is near.
But a new study has uncovered brain connectivity patterns among newborns that may be associated with anxiety and depression later on in life.
Published in the most recent edition of Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the research suggests that signs of depression and anxiety may be apparent right from birth.
“[Brain connectivity patterns] may indicate that for some children their brains are developing along a trajectory that increases their risk for mental health symptoms as they develop,” Dr. Cynthia Rogers, one of the study’s leads and a child psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, told the Huffington Post.
Using a sample of over 120 newborns — 65 full-term and 57 premature — scientists took MRI scans of each baby at birth. Two years later, the same lot was reassessed.
Doctors looked at activity in parts of the brain responsible for fear (the amygdala), managing emotion (the insula), and decision-making (the medial prefrontal cortex), and found that a stronger connectivity between these areas elevated risk for anxiety and depression.
Interestingly, it didn’t seem to matter whether the child was a premature or born on time, which was previously believed — it all came down to brain activity.
“If we can understand what patterns of connectivity are related to early social and emotional impairments, we can then study what predicts those connectivity patterns,” Rogers told the Huffington Post. “We can evaluate whether there are experiences these children have while in the hospital or early in infancy that change these patterns for better or worse that we can aim to modify.”
Now, it’s definitely unpleasant for any parent or future parent to consider that their newborn may hold the genetic keys to anxiety or depression, but on the other hand, this knowledge can be incredibly powerful. In fact, by further understanding how the brain develops and how depressive tendencies get reinforced or not, we’ll be able to better help those who are hardwired for depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
Rogers is optimistic that the babies who show these connectivity patterns are far from sealed in their fate.
“It’s important to note, however, that the experiences and environment that they are exposed to as they grow may alter these connectivity patterns making it more or less likely for these symptoms to develop,” she told the Huffington Post. So parenting does still play a major role.
In the battle against mental health, studies like this, which get to the root of the causes of anxiety and depression, are hugely important, even if the findings are tough to stomach.
If you think your child is showing signs of depression or anxiety, the Canadian Mental Health Association is a good resource to help better understand the issues and find help.