A woman with depression might have her mother's brain circuitry at least partly to blame, suggests a new study out of the University of California San Francisco. In the small but potentially groundbreaking study led by psychiatry professor Fumiko Hoeft, researchers discovered that the structure of the part of the brain with a hand in mood disorders is more likely to be passed down from mother to daughter than from mother to son or father to either sex. The study involving 35 healthy families focused on the corticolimbic system, which encompasses key parts of the brain that help regulate mood: the amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, and vertromedical prefrontal cortex. Using MRI brain scans, researchers discovered "positive associations of regional gray matter volume in the corticolimbic circuit ... between biological mothers and daughters."
"We're the first one to get the whole family and scan both parents and offspring to look at how similar their brain networks are," Hoeft tells Scientific American. But she cautions that the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, doesn't necessarily mean that moms are to blame if their daughters suffer from depression. All kinds of factors are at play, including social environment, and "mother-daughter transmission is just one piece of it." But the study is the first to show this kind of connection and opens the door to further research about its role not only in depression but in everything from anxiety to dyslexia, she says. A psychologist who wasn't part of the study tells Scientific American that she'd like to see whether the results are replicated when "depressed mothers," rather than "healthy families," are studied. (New guidelines suggest everyone be screened for depression.)