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August 15, 2011

Children of depressed mothers have a different brain

MRI scans show their children have an enlarged amygdala

Researchers think that brains are sensitive to the quality of child care, according to a study that was directed by Dr. Sonia Lupien and her colleagues from the University of Montreal published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists worked with ten year old children whose mothers exhibited symptoms of depression throughout their lives, and discovered that the children’s amygdala, a part of the brain linked to emotional responses, was enlarged. Similar changes, but of greater magnitude, have been found in the brains of adoptees initially raised in orphanages. Personalized attention to children’s needs may be the key factor.


“Other studies have shown that mothers feeling depressed were less sensitive to their children’s needs and were more withdrawn and disengaged.”

Drs. Sophie Parent and Jean Séguin of the University of Montreal


Scientists have established that the amygdala is involved in assigning emotional significance to information and events, and it contributes to the way we behave in response to potential risks. The need to learn about the safety or danger of new experiences may be greater in early life, when we know little about the world around us. Indeed, studies on other mammals, such as primates, show that the amygdala develops most rapidly shortly after birth.


“We do not know if the enlargement that we have observed is the result of long-term exposure to lower quality care. But we show that growing up with a depressed mother is associated with enlarged amygdala.”

Dr. Sonia Lupien, Scientific Director at the Fernand-Seguin Research Center

Read the press release

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