Pathological disturbances of mood may follow a 'bipolar' course, in which normal moods alternate with both depression and mania, or a 'unipolar' course, in which only depression occurs. Both bipolar and unipolar disorders can be heritable illnesses associated with neurochemical, neuroendocrine and autonomic abnormalities. The neurobiological basis for these abnormalities has not been established. Using positron emission tomographic (PET) images of cerebral blood flow and rate of glucose metabolism to measure brain activity, we have now localized an area of abnormally decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex ventral to the genu of the corpus callosum in both familial bipolar depressives and familial unipolar depressives. This decrement in activity was at least partly explained by a corresponding reduction in cortical volume, as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) demonstrated reductions in the mean grey matter volume in the same area of 39 and 48% in the bipolar and unipolar samples, respectively. This region has previously been implicated in the mediation of emotional and autonomic responses to socially significant or provocative stimuli, and in the modulation of the neurotransmitter systems targeted by antidepressant drugs.