Background Research in adolescents and adults has suggested that altered neural processing of reward following early life adversity is a highly promising depressive intermediate phenotype. However, very little is known about how stress response, neural processing of reward, and depression are related in very young children. The present study examined the concurrent associations between cortisol response following a stressor, functional brain activity to reward, and depression severity in children 4 to 6 years old. Methods Medication-naïve children 4 to 6 years old (N = 52) participated in a study using functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess neural reactivity to reward, including gain, loss, and neutral outcomes. Parent-reported child depression severity and child cortisol response following stress were also measured. Results Greater caudate and medial prefrontal cortex reactivity to gain outcomes and increased amygdala reactivity to salient (i.e., both gain and loss) outcomes were observed. Higher total cortisol output following a stressor was associated with increased depression severity and reduced amygdala reactivity to salient outcomes. Amygdala reactivity was also inversely associated with depression severity and was found to mediate the relationship between cortisol output and depression severity. Conclusions Results suggest that altered neural processing of reward is already related to increased cortisol output and depression severity in preschoolers. These results also demonstrate an important role for amygdala function as a mediator of this relationship at a very early age. Our results further underscore early childhood as an important developmental period for understanding the neurobiological correlates of early stress and increased risk for depression.
- Reward processing