NIMH Grant to Study Childhood Depression

TAMPA, Fla. (June 22, 2009) – Happy childhoods aren’t a given in life.  In fact, depression can be found even in young children. The University of South Florida is looking into juvenile-onset depression (JOD) to find out what puts children at risk for becoming depressed so early in life, as well as how to help depressed children recover. Funding for this project was just awarded by the National Institute of Mental Health in the amount of $3.8 million over five years to USF and the other participating institutions in the study: the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Szeged in Hungary.


“We’re going to study children between the ages of 11 and 18 in part because adolescence is one of the major risk periods for developing depression,” said Jonathan Rottenberg, assistant professor of psychology. “One thing that is novel about this study is that we are not only studying children who have already been affected by depression, we’re also going to study their siblings, including siblings who have never been personally affected by depression. This design will allow us to discover what factors predict developing a first onset of depression in a child who is likely to be vulnerable to depression because of their family history.”


According to Rottenberg this study is significant because depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide and JOD is a particularly severe and recurrent form of depression that accounts for about 50% of the cases of depression in young adults.


Children will be recruited from a carefully diagnosed sample of over 700 young patients with JOD (each with at least one sibling). These children represent a national, clinical sample in Hungary, who participated in a recent research project headed by Maria Kovacs of the University of Pittsburgh. Kovacs, who is an expert on the epidemiology of JOD and Rottenberg, who is an expert on emotional functioning in depression, decided to pool their efforts as principal investigators on this project and propose further studies with this unique sample.


“One of the main ideas we are testing involves the idea that people who are vulnerable to depression tend to be less flexible in how they respond to the environment,” Rottenberg said. “In this study we are incorporating both biological and behavioral measures of flexibility in the laboratory and seeing to what extent an inflexible pattern of response to laboratory challenges predicts depression over the course of adolescence. For example, we have techniques to induce a sad mood in the children, and then we are examining how well the children are able to repair or reverse their sad mood repair using specific techniques such as thinking of happy memories or trying to distract themselves." 


In addition to examining this behavioral flexibility, the researchers will simultaneously measure something called cardiac vagal control (CVC), which refers to control of respiratory-linked heart rate.


“It is called cardiac vagal control because activity in the vagus nerve exerts a strong influence on the beat-to-beat variability in heart rate,” said Rottenberg. “When we breathe out, there is more vagal activity and heart rate slows down; when we breathe in, there is less vagal activity and heart rate speeds up. CVC has shown to be an excellent biological measure of flexibility, in that having a high degree of CVC is associated with being able to mobilize the body in the face of a challenge, and also helping the body recover from the effects of stress,” Rottenberg said. 


“We believe that by studying behavior and biology at the same time we will gain a more complete picture of what factors render a child especially vulnerable to depression and what factors might protect a vulnerable child against developing depression. We are delighted that the NIMH is supporting this program of research.”


The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of 39 community-engaged, four-year public universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded more than $360 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2007/2008. The university offers 219 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The university has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 46,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.