Children with depressed mothers may end up with altered immune responses and at greater risk for psychological disorders, a new study led by Israeli professor Ruth Feldman reveals.
Maternal depression may have a significant effect on the way children's brains work, the researchers write in the journal Depression & Anxiety.
"If you grow up with a clinically depressed mother, your body's stress response and immunity are [affected]," said Feldman, the Simms-Mann professor of developmental neuroscience at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzlia, Israel and an adjunct professor at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut. "This is even if the family is of low-risk socioeconomic status, there are two parents and no issues of poverty or physical illness." That physical impact can lead to psychological issues, Feldman said in an email. "This programming of the child's physiology to high stress reactivity charts a pathway to psychiatric vulnerability and symptoms," she explained.
Feldman's team followed 125 newborn babies until they were 10 years old. When the infants were six months old, the moms were asked to fill out questionnaires designed to look at levels of depression and anxiety. The researchers again touched base with the families when the children were six years old.
When the children were 10, the researchers measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol and the immune marker secretory immunoglobulin in both mothers and children. The researchers also observed how the mothers and children interacted and noted whether the children displayed any symptoms of psychological distress, such as acting out or being socially withdrawn or anxious. Moms and their kids were also interviewed and diagnosed if they had any psychiatric disorders.
Feldman and her colleagues determined that depressed moms had higher levels of cortisol and secretory immunoglobulin.
Moreover, the depressed moms also displayed more negative parenting. "Depressed mothers are less engaged, less empathetic," Feldman said. They "show more negative and inconsistent (mood). They are more critical and hostile and are less sensitive to the child's non-verbal and verbal social communication." Children with depressed moms also had higher than normal levels of secretory immunoglobulin and were more likely to act out or to be anxious or withdrawn compared to children whose moms were not depressed.
The study shows the impact a mom's depression can have on a growing child, said Dr. Priya Gopalan, chief of psychiatry at the Magee-Womens Hospital and the Western Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who was not involved in the study.
That can include a heightening of the fight or flight response in children constantly exposed to a depressed parent, Gopalan said. The tuned-up fight or flight response in turn can lead to psychological problems in the children, she said.
"This tells us . . . that we really need to get these moms treated," Gopalan said. "But we also don't want to shame our moms. They already feel guilt about what they are experiencing.
"Studies like this give me more information to help me explain to depressed moms why it's good to get treated," Gopalan said. "Maybe moms will be more highly motivated to get treated if they think it will benefit their children." The new research "underscores the need to be aggressive at detecting and treating depression," said Dr. Dorothy Sit, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. "The proper diagnosis and treatment is critical. With it we may be able to alter the pathway for mothers and their offspring."