Every exhausted parent can be tempted to check out at times, especially when the little ones are testing limits.

A happy child, presumably not neglected, buried in sand. (D. Sharon Pruitt via Wikimedia Commons)

A happy child, presumably not neglected, buried in sand. (D. Sharon Pruitt via Wikimedia Commons)

But when moments of autopilot become months or years, that is considered emotional neglect and it’s strongly linked to the subsequent development of clinical depression in children. Ahmad Hariri’s lab at Duke studies emotional neglect, defined as a caregiver consistently overlooking signs that a child needs comfort or attention, even for something positive.

“Early in life, during infancy, an emotional neglectful parent would regularly be unresponsive and uninvolved with their child,” said Jamie Hanson, a postdoctoral researcher in Hariri’s group. “In early childhood, parents would be clearly unengaged in playing with the child, showing little to no affection during interactions.”

In a study published online in Biological Psychiatry, Hanson, Hariri and their collaborator Douglas Williamson of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center San Antonio, found that the more emotional neglect the children had experienced in their lives, the less responsive their brain was to a reward (winning money in a card game). They had scanned the brains of 106 children between 11 and 15 years of age, and then again two years later.

The scientists focused on the ventral striatum, a brain area known to fire up in response to positive feedback. This region is thought to play a role in optimism and hopefulness, and its dysfunction has been associated with depression. The team wondered: Are the kids with dulled ventral striatum activity more likely to have symptoms of depression? They were.

Ahmad Hariri

Ahmad Hariri

Depression rates start to rise around 15 or 16 years of age, and that’s why the team focused on this age. The cohort of kids they studied were part of Williamson’s Teen Alcohol Outcomes Study (TAOS), and Hanson and Hariri hope to continue following them.

In a different cohort called the Duke Neurogenetics Study, Hariri’s team has found that the responsiveness of the ventral striatum and the amygdala — another area that handles life stress — may help predict how likely young adults are to develop problem drinking in response to stress or to engage in risky sexual behavior.

Being able to identify the children or young adults who are at risk for depression and anxiety is a tall order. But the possibility that we could one day funnel extra support to these individuals and help them avoid a lifetime of medicines and therapy is what keeps Hariri and his team going.

Personally, as a parent, I’m excited see what the Hariri group will do next. During our interview, I couldn’t help running a few scenarios by him and Hanson. Am I emotionally neglecting my toddler if she’s having a tantrum and I have to leave the room or I’ll scream?

“You can have a bad week,” said Hariri, who is also a dad. “You’re not ruining your kid.”

KellyRae_Chi_100Guest post by Kelly Rae Chi, a Cary-based freelance writer who covers brain science for Duke Research.