Reaction of Children's Eyes to Sad Stimuli May Predict Depression

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Physiological responses to viewing sad images may serve as a predictor of depression in children, according to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

For children of women with depression, their rate of pupil dilation in response to emotional stimuli may be a biomarker of depression onset over a 2-year period.

For the study, the researchers recruited children whose mothers had a history of major depressive disorder. They measured each child’s pupil dilation via pupillometry as they looked at pictures of angry, happy, and sad faces. The researchers performed follow-up assessments over a 2-year period, using structured interviews to assess depressive symptoms and clinical diagnosis of depression.

Children who showed greater pupil dilation in response to sad images experienced higher levels of depressive symptoms during follow up. They also showed shorter times to onset of clinically significant depression. Children’s pupillary responses to angry or happy faces were not associated with depression.

Pupillometry is inexpensive, which makes it a viable potential tool for identifying at-risk children in a clinical setting. "We think this line of research could eventually lead to universal screenings in pediatricians' offices to assess future depression risk in kids," Brandon Gibb, PhD, of Binghamton University in New York, said in a statement.

Reaction of Children's Eyes to Sad Stimuli May Predict Depression
Children whose pupils dilate more when exposed to sad stimuli may be more likely to develop depression.

How much a child's pupil dilates in response to seeing an emotional image can predict his or her risk of depression over the next two years, according to new research from Binghamton University.

According to Brandon Gibb, professor of psychology at Binghamton University and director of the Mood Disorders Institute and Center for Affective Science, the new findings suggest that physiological reactivity to sad stimuli, assessed using pupillometry, serves as one potential biomarker of depression risk among children of depressed mothers. Notably, pupillometry is an inexpensive tool that could be administered in clinical settings, such as pediatricians' offices, to help identify which children of depressed mothers are at highest risk for developing depression themselves.

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