Neural Activity During Self-referential Processing in Children at Risk for Depression

Pan Liu, Matthew R.J. Vandermeer, Marc F. Joanisse, Deanna M. Barch, David J.A. Dozois, Elizabeth P. Hayden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Background: According to cognitive theories of depression, more negative and less positive self-schemas are thought to play a causal role in the disorder. Existing evidence speaks to the neural substrates of self-referential processes in both healthy and depressed individuals, but little is known about how the brain relates to self-referential processing in the context of depression risk in children. We therefore studied the neural substrates of self-referential processing in never-depressed preadolescent children at high and low risk for depression based on maternal depression history. Methods: A total of 87 never-depressed 10–12-year-old children (29 with maternal depression) completed a self-referential encoding task during a functional magnetic resonance imaging session, in which they were presented a series of positive and negative trait adjectives and endorsed whether each word was self-descriptive. Small volume correction analyses were conducted within 7 regions of interest that are important for self-referential and emotion-related processes. Results: Analyses of small volume correction indicated that high-risk children showed greater activation in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex during the positive-word self-referential encoding task condition than low-risk children. Ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activation mediated the association between maternal depression and child depressive symptoms only when children had lower positive self-schemas, indicating that more positive self-schemas may protect at-risk children from developing depressive symptoms. Conclusions: Cortical midline and prefrontal regions are important to self-, emotion-, and regulation-related processes. Heightened activation within these regions in never-depressed high-risk children indicates that these neurobiological substrates may mediate early vulnerability to depression in the context of cognitive processes relevant to self-concepts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)429-437
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2020


  • Depression
  • fMRI
  • Maternal history
  • Preadolescence
  • Self-referential encoding task
  • vlPFC


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