Boys at high-risk for familial depression show sadness oversensitivity

Boys, but not girls, with depressed parents display enhanced perceptual sensitivity to sadness when compared with low-risk peers, a study has shown.

These findings suggest biases may be present in boys before the onset of major depression, say Nestor Lopez-Duran (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA) and co-authors in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

A group of children aged between 7 and 13 years, at either low risk (n=40) or high familial risk for depression (n=64) were presented with pictures of facial expressions. To examine emotion recognition, every image varied in emotional intensity from neutral to full-intensity sadness or anger, and each child indicated the specific emotion shown using a forced choice paradigm. Emotion discrimination was then assessed using pictures of faces morphing from anger to sadness.

When recognizing emotion, boys, but not girls, at high familial risk for depression identified sadness at significantly lower intensity levels than their low-risk counterparts. There was no difference between high- and low-risk groups in the identification of anger, however. In the emotion discrimination task, both high-risk and low-risk children displayed an increased perception of sadness in ambiguous mixed faces, although this bias diminished slightly in high-risk children.

"Previous research has shown that offspring of depressed parents are at higher risk of developing the disease. Hence identifying differences between high- and low-risk kids can help us understand potential mechanisms of risk transmission," say Lopez-Duran and colleagues.

They note that both high- and low-risk groups over identified sadness in faces that included greater intensity of anger than sadness, but high-risk children were less likely to over identify sadness in this situation than their low-risk peers.

The authors explained, "It is likely that the sad over-identification could reflect developmental differences in perception of facial expression. Evidence has shown that children may recognise sadness at the same levels as adults some four years before they can recognise anger to the same degree."

Lopez-Duran and colleagues conclude: "We interpret greater perceptual sensitivity as a mechanism of risk for depression, however, this deduction is restricted owing to insufficient information about eventual depression onset (or lack of), in the children we studied. We believe that future studies should investigate whether sensitivity to sad cues amongst high-risk children predicts either onset or severity of depressive disorders later in life."

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