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Credit: Carson Kahoe

Penn Medicine researchers established a link between childhood trauma and abnormal brain connectivity in patients with clinical depression in a recently published study. This is the first data–driven study to link changes in brain function to specific symptoms of clinical depression, according to Penn Med News. 

Penn Med professor Yvette Sheline led the study, which was published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences on April 8. Sheline, who is also director of the Center for Neuromodulation in Depression and Stress, worked with other researchers on analyzing brain functionality in patients with and without clinical depression.

The study was conducted by comparing brain activity in 189 clinical depression patients with 39 patients without depression. Meichen Yu, a postdoctoral researcher, then analyzed clinical symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidality, which were measured through 213 survey questions.

Patients with clinical depression were not selected based on a history of trauma. The brain imaging did, however, identify abnormal functional connectivity in those with trauma, even if their traumas were not recent.

Clinical depression is a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and apathy. Also called major depressive disorder, it affects many aspects of a person’s life and can lead to suicide. Research has shown that depression is present in at least 50 percent of all suicides. Many studies examine potential causes of clinical depression, yet the neurobiological mechanisms associated with it are largely unknown. 

In other studies, Penn Med researchers have linked early life trauma to depression later in life, but this recent study found the way trauma resulted in specific neurobiological symptoms, and  suggests a possible environmental cause for these symptoms. 

Sheline highlighted the importance of studying trauma in relation to brain development and clinical depression. She said she hopes the study will help establish biological indicators for clinical depression and allow for a more targeted diagnosis of the disease. 

“With estimates of approximately 10 percent of all children in the United States having been subjected to child abuse, the significance of child maltreatment on brain development and function is an important consideration,” Sheline told Penn Med News.

The study also included co–authors from University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, Mass General Hospital, University of Texas, and Columbia University.