Anxiety and depression present growing challenges in our society. While we have come far in identifying how these disorders influence our thoughts and actions, research on the early risk factors for these symptoms, and how they are embodied during childhood and adolescence, is critically needed.
In recent work, our researchers have shown that early maternal stress factors such as high levels of depression and financial worries predicted a cascade of biological and behavioral differences linked to anxiety in the children as they developed into teenage girls. In this work, teenagers who experienced higher maternal stress in infancy and who have heightened cortisol levels in early childhood went on to show lower brain connectivity in neural pathways important for emotion regulation.
In this study, participants of both sexes now in their early 20s who were selected from the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work are returning to the lab, where researchers are exploring participants’ continued development into adulthood.
Our researchers believe this work highlights our collective responsibility to identify maternal depression in the postpartum period and to provide significant support for families following a child’s birth and throughout early childhood. Such support can alleviate family distress and provide the stable groundwork critical in preventing the development of depressive and anxious symptoms in adolescence and beyond.