Most of us assume that babies can’t experience depression and anxiety because those are feelings you can only have after you learn about things like injustice, unrequited love and who our president is. But a new study says that even infants can show signs associated with later depression and anxiety.
In this month’s issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, there is a study with the very complicated title, “Neonatal Amygdala Functional Connectivity at Rest in Healthy and Preterm Infants and Early Internalizing Symptoms.” (Whew.) What the study found was that in both full-term and preterm infants, there were, as The Huffington Post explains it, “certain patterns of brain connectivity… in newborn babies that can predict the baby’s likelihood of showing early symptoms of mental illness.”
To examine the theory that preterm babies have a greater risk of developing mental illness, researchers did MRIs on 65 full-term and 57 preterm babies, and then studied them again two years later. They found that in both full-term and preterm babies, those with a stronger connection between the amygdala (the brain’s center of emotion, emotional behavior and motivation) and the medial prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in memory and decision-making) were more likely to show signs of depression or anxiety at age 2 (such as hopelessness, sadness, irritability and being unable to find joy in things like toys).
But those of us who have depression or anxiety and worry about passing it on to our kids don’t need to surrender to the idea that our kids will either be born with our mental illness or they won’t. As Dr. Cynthia Rogers, one of the study’s authors, told HuffPo, “It’s important to note… that the experiences and environment that they are exposed to as they grow may alter these connectivity patterns, making it more or less likely for these symptoms to develop.”
Biology is not destiny, and knowing that our children may be born with certain traits can only help us to be more attentive to our children’s feelings and our role in shaping their futures.