London - Pregnant women with depression can pass the condition on to their unborn babies, research has found.
A combination of genetic and environmental factors can put children at an increased risk of anxiety and mood disorders.
This is due to changes in a part of children’s brains called the amygdala, which is responsible for controlling emotion and stress and is linked to anxiety disorders.
Previous research has assessed children years after birth, but not looked at when the changes actually begin.
Researchers at the National University of Singapore asked 157 pregnant women to answer a questionnaire to ascertain their mental health during the 26th week of pregnancy.
Within two weeks of birth their babies were given MRI scans to look at the structure of their brains – in particular the amygdala.
It was found that the mother’s level of depression had no effect on its volume. However, researchers found reduced “structural connectivity”, or abnormal wiring, in the right amygdala of infants of more depressed mothers. The finding suggests that abnormal amygdala function can be transmitted from mothers to babies before birth.
Researchers believe that a history of maternal depression might contribute to a tendency to the life-long increase in the vulnerability to mental illness in children.
The study, published in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry, also adds weight to the theory that pregnant women should be given mental health screening and that interventions targeting maternal depression should begin early in pregnancy, not after the baby is born.
Dr John Krystal, from the University of Yale School of Medicine and the Editor of Biological Psychiatry, said: “The notion that maternal depression might influence the brain development of their babies is very concerning. The good news is that this risk might be reduced by systematic screening of pregnant women for depression and initiating effective treatment.”
The findings come as health experts confirm that the number of children suffering from depression is on the rise.
NHS guidelines brought in this September said that children as young as five are showing signs of depression and nearly 80 000 children in the UK are living with the mental illness.
Figures suggest that more than 8 000 children under the age of ten now suffer from depression.
Separate research, ongoing UK Children of the 90s study, found that teenagers could be one-and-a-half times more likely to become depressed if their mothers suffered the condition while they were pregnant.
The guidelines, set out by the public health agency National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, say children showing symptoms of depression need to be properly diagnosed and offered more support.
They advise that “age appropriate” material and techniques should be used to help a child understand their treatment. - Daily Mail