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Maternal Depression and Warmth During Childhood Predict Age 20 Neural Response to Reward 
Morgan JK, Shaw DS, Forbes EE

Healthy brain development occurs in the context of supportive and warm family relationships, and early parenting experiences likely shape a child’s brain development, with consequences potentially extending into adulthood.  Researchers from the Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology investigated whether the impact of maternal warmth on reward function differed depending on exposure to maternal depression.

As part of the Pittsburgh Mother & Child Project, Drs. Judith Morgan, Daniel Shaw, and Erika Forbes studied 120 boys and their mothers at socioeconomic risk for emotional problems.  The investigators measured the mothers’ history of depression during the child’s lifetime when the boys were three and a half years old, and then again when the children reached ages 10 and 11 years old.  They also assessed maternal warmth by observing mother–child interactions during early childhood, when the boys were 18 months and 24 months old, and again during early adolescence, when boys were 10 and 11 years old.  At age 20, the young men participated in an fMRI monetary guessing task that measures reward-related brain function

The results of this project showed that maternal warmth during early childhood and early adolescence predicted reward function in the striatum and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) only  for boys exposed to maternal depression relative to boys who were not. Specifically, for boys exposed to maternal depression, higher levels of maternal warmth during early childhood were associated with less mPFC activation when anticipating the receipt of reward. Also, higher levels of maternal warmth during early adolescence were associated with greater striatal activation when anticipating the receipt of reward. Given that depression is associated with low striatal response and heightened mPFC response to reward,  the experience of warmth and affection from mothers may promote healthy and typical reward function in boys exposed to maternal depression.  This large, longitudinal study provides evidence that maternal history of depression and maternal warmth during early childhood and early adolescence are associated with neural processing of reward during early adulthood. These findings also provide a hopeful and constructive goal for clinicians—helping depressed parents maintain warm and positive parent-child relationships in order to prevent the development of disrupted reward systems in their high-risk offspring. 

Contributors: 
Judith K. Morgan, PhD1; Daniel S. Shaw, PhD2; Erika E. Forbes, PhD1,2 (Department of Psychiatry1, University of Pittsburgh; Department of Psychology2, University of Pittsburgh)

The results of this investigation were published in the January 2014 issue of Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.  Click here for a link to the abstract.