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Neuropsychopharmacology. 2018 Feb;43(3):546-554. doi: 10.1038/npp.2017.246. Epub 2017 Oct 17.

The Limbic System in Youth Depression: Brain Structural and Functional Alterations in Adolescent In-patients with Severe Depression.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Münster, Münster, Germany.
Department of Clinical Radiology, University of Münster, Münster, Germany.
Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Münster, Münster, Germany.
Department of Applied Health Sciences, University of Applied Sciences, Bochum, Germany.


Adolescent-onset major depressive disorder (MDD) is associated with an increased risk of recurrent depressive episodes, suicidal behaviors, and psychiatric morbidity throughout the lifespan. The objective of the present study was to investigate brain structural and functional changes in adolescent patients with MDD. Furthermore, we aimed to clarify the influence of early-life stress on brain function and structure. The study investigated adolescent patients with severe MDD (n=20, mean age=16.0, range=15-18 years) and a control sample of matched healthy adolescents (n=21, mean age=16.6, range=15-18 years). Functional MRI data were obtained using a face-matching paradigm to investigate emotion processing. Structural MRI data were analyzed using voxel-based morphometry (VBM). In line with previous studies on adult MDD, adolescent patients showed elevated amygdala activity to negative and reduced amygdala activity to positive emotional stimuli. Furthermore, MDD patients showed smaller hippocampal volumes compared to healthy adolescents. Higher levels of childhood maltreatment were associated with smaller hippocampal volumes in both depressed patients and healthy controls, whereby no associations between amygdala reactivity and childhood maltreatment were found. Our results suggest that hippocampal alterations in youth MDD patients may at least partly be traced back to higher occurrence of early-life adverse experiences. Regarding the strong morphometric impact of childhood maltreatment and its distinctly elevated prevalence in MDD populations, this study provides an alternative explanation for frequently observed limbic structural abnormalities in depressed patients.

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