Despite growing evidence for atypical amygdala function and structure in major depression, it remains uncertain as to whether these brain differences reflect the clinical state of depression or neurobiological traits that predispose individuals to major depression. We examined function and structure of the amygdala and associated areas in a group of unaffected children of depressed parents (at-risk group) and a group of children of parents without a history of major depression (control group). Compared to the control group, the at-risk group showed increased activation to fearful relative to neutral facial expressions in the amygdala and multiple cortical regions, and decreased activation to happy relative to neutral facial expressions in the anterior cingulate cortex and supramarginal gyrus. At-risk children also exhibited reduced amygdala volume. The extensive hyperactivation to negative facial expressions and hypoactivation to positive facial expressions in at-risk children are consistent with behavioral evidence that risk for major depression involves a bias to attend to negative information. These functional and structural brain differences between at-risk children and controls suggest that there are trait neurobiological underpinnings of risk for major depression.
Keywords: Amygdala volume; Children; Emotional faces; Familial risk; Major depression; fMRI.