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J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2018 Sep;59(9):994-1002. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12895. Epub 2018 Mar 25.

Emerging depression in adolescence coincides with accelerated frontal cortical thinning.

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Department of Psychology, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands.
Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden, The Netherlands.
Department of Psychology, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.



Adolescence is a transition period characterized by heightened emotional reactivity, which for some sets the stage for emerging depressive symptoms. Prior studies suggest that adolescent depression is associated with deviant cortical and subcortical brain structure. Longitudinal studies are, however, currently scarce, but critical to detect which adolescents are at risk for developing depressive symptoms.


In this longitudinal study, a community sample of 205 participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in three biennial waves (522 scans) spanning 5 years across ages 8-25 years. Depressive symptomatology was assessed using self-report at the third time point. Mixed models were used to examine the relations between structural brain development, specifically regional change in cortical thickness, surface area and subcortical volumes (hippocampus and amygdala), and depressive symptoms.


Accelerated frontal lobe cortical thinning was observed in adolescents who developed depressive symptoms at the third time point. This effect remained after controlling for parent-reported affective problems at the first time point. Moreover, the effect was driven by specific lateral orbitofrontal and precentral regions. In addition, differential developmental trajectories of parietal cortical thickness and surface area in several regions were found for participants reporting higher depressive symptomatology, but these results did not survive correction for multiple comparisons. Volumes or developmental volume changes in hippocampus or amygdala were not related to depressive symptoms.


This study showed that emerging depression is associated with cortical thinning in frontal regions within individuals. These findings move beyond detecting cross-sectional correlations and set the stage for early detection, which may inform future intervention.


MRI ; Adolescence; brain development; cerebral cortex; depression; longitudinal

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