Brain structural associations with depression in a large early adolescent sample (the ABCD study®)

EClinicalMedicine. 2021 Nov 20:42:101204. doi: 10.1016/j.eclinm.2021.101204. eCollection 2021 Dec.


Background: Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide with > 50% of cases emerging before the age of 25 years. Large-scale neuroimaging studies in depression implicate robust structural brain differences in the disorder. However, most studies have been conducted in adults and therefore, the temporal origins of depression-related imaging features remain largely unknown. This has important implications for understanding aetiology and informing timings of potential intervention.

Methods: Here, we examine associations between brain structure (cortical metrics and white matter microstructural integrity) and depression ratings (from caregiver and child), in a large sample (N = 8634) of early adolescents (9 to 11 years old) from the US-based, Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study®. Data was collected from 2016 to 2018.

Findings: We report significantly decreased global cortical and white matter metrics, and regionally in frontal, limbic and temporal areas in adolescent depression (Cohen's d = -0⋅018 to -0⋅041, β = -0·019 to -0⋅057). Further, we report consistently stronger imaging associations for caregiver-reported compared to child-reported depression ratings. Divergences between reports (caregiver vs child) were found to significantly relate to negative socio-environmental factors (e.g., family conflict, absolute β = 0⋅048 to 0⋅169).

Interpretation: Depression ratings in early adolescence were associated with similar imaging findings to those seen in adult depression samples, suggesting neuroanatomical abnormalities may be present early in the disease course, arguing for the importance of early intervention. Associations between socio-environmental factors and reporter discrepancy warrant further consideration, both in the wider context of the assessment of adolescent psychopathology, and in relation to their role in aetiology.

Funding: Wellcome Trust (References: 104036/Z/14/Z and 220857/Z/20/Z) and the Medical Research Council (MRC, Reference: MC_PC_17209).

Keywords: Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study; Adolescent depression; Big data; Brain structure.