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From Medscape Medical News > Psychiatry

Kids of Depressed Moms More Apt to Suffer Mental Disorders

Megan Brooks



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December 8, 2011 (Waikoloa, Hawaii) — Children of depressed mothers are at increased risk of developing anxiety and conduct disorders, but a well-functioning oxytocin system may lessen the risk, according to research presented here at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP) 50th Annual Meeting.

"Postpartum depression affects up to 15% of women, largely goes undiagnosed, and has long-term effects on children, especially their social and emotional development," principal investigator Ruth Feldman, PhD, psychology professor at Ban-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel, told reporters attending a press briefing.

"This is an exciting study with lots of very important potential treatment and prevention implications," said M. Katherine Shear, MD, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City. Dr. Shear is also chair of the ACNP's Public Information Committee and press conference moderator.

Dr. Feldman and colleagues studied the mental health status, oxytocin levels, genetic variation in oxytocin receptors, and social interactions in 155 mother-child pairs. Approximately 50 of the mothers had been depressed on and off throughout the child's early life (from birth to 5 years).

The researchers found that children exposed to chronic maternal depression throughout the first 5 years of their life were more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder by the time they reached school age.

About 60% of these children developed either an anxiety disorder or a conduct disorder. In comparison, only 15% of the children of mentally healthy mothers developed a psychiatric disorder by the time they reached school age.

The researchers made extensive videotapes of family interactions and observed that children of depressed mothers were "much less socially engaged, much more withdrawn, and did not have the skills to engage in social interaction within their families. They also showed lower levels of empathy to the pain and distress of strangers," Dr. Feldman reported.

Key Mediator

Depressed mothers and their children also had lower levels of oxytocin in their saliva and were 3 times more likely than their healthy counterparts to have a variant on the oxytocin receptor (OXTR rs2254298), which is known to confer a risk of depression.

This finding is "interesting," Dr. Feldman said, because the oxytocin system is the biological system that supports our capacity to form social affiliations and close bonds and to trust and be empathetic toward others.

"Oxytocin mediated the effects of maternal depression; some of our depressed mothers did not have the risk allele, and those mothers were somehow more able to provide adequate parenting," she explained.

"Children who were born to depressed mothers and exposed to chronic maternal depression throughout early life but did not have a mother who had the risk allele had a lower level of psychopathology and showed better social and emotional skills and reciprocity," Dr. Feldman reported.

The current study suggests that the functioning of the oxytocin system "helps to safeguard some children against the effects of chronic maternal depression," Dr. Feldman said. "This could lead to potential treatment options for postpartum depression and methods to help children develop stronger oxytocin systems."

The oxytocin system functions as a biobehavioral feedback loop, she explained, and interventions such as touch, close contact, and eye gazing can trigger the oxytocin system.

"If we know that this system is disrupted, there are oxytocin-related interventions that could be helpful…when the children are young. This might provide some protective barrier to social and emotional problems and the development of psychopathology," Dr. Feldman said.

Dr. Feldman and Dr. Shear have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP) 50th Annual Meeting. Presented December 8, 2011.

Authors and Disclosures


Megan Brooks

Megan Brooks is a freelance writer for Medscape.

Disclosure: Megan Brooks has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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