Pupillary dilation predicts depression in children

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published January 5, 2016

Key Takeaways

Pupillary dilation in response to seeing a sad image can predict risk for depression in children with a family history of depression, according to a study by researchers at Binghamton University in Binghamton, NY.

“We want to identify these kids early before they develop their initial depression,” said lead author Brandon Gibb, PhD, professor of psychology at Binghamton University and director of the Mood Disorders Institute and  Center for Affective Science. “We want to know, can we find some type of test or measure or marker that will tell us which kids are going to develop depression in the future?”

Pupillometry—measurement of pupil dilation—appears to be one such test.

“What’s interesting about pupil dilation is that it [the pupil] will dilate slightly in response to emotional information. It’s a very subtle thing, but it’s easy to measure,” Dr. Gibb said.

In their study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Dr. Gibb and colleagues recruited 47 children whose mothers had a history of major depressive disorder. Pupil dilation was recorded while the children viewed angry, happy, and sad faces. Follow-up assessments over the next two years evaluated the children’s level of depressive symptoms, as well as the onset of depressive diagnoses.

“What we found was that the kids who tended to have the greatest pupil dilation in response to sad faces were also at greatest risk for depressive diagnoses,” Dr. Gibb said. These children also had a shorter time to the onset of a clinically significant depressive episode.

The children’s pupil reactions occurred only with sad faces, not angry or happy faces.

These findings suggest that physiological reactivity to sad stimuli, assessed using pupillometry, serves as one potential biomarker of depression risk among children of depressed mothers.

The researchers concluded that pupillometry is an inexpensive tool that could be administered in clinical settings to help identify which children of depressed mothers are at highest risk for developing depression themselves.

“What we’re hoping to do eventually is to develop this into a standardized test that could be administered in pediatrician’s offices as part of the standard checkups kids get,” Dr. Gibb said.

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