Depression is a common outcome for those having experienced early-life stress (ELS). For those individuals, depression typically increases during adolescence and appears to endure into adulthood, suggesting alterations in the development of brain systems involved in depression. Developmentally, the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), a limbic structure associated with reward learning and motivation, typically undergoes dramatic functional change during adolescence; therefore, age-related changes in NAcc function may underlie increases in depression in adolescence following ELS. The current study examined the effects of ELS in 38 previously institutionalized children and adolescents in comparison to a group of 31 youths without a history of ELS. Consistent with previous research, the findings showed that depression was higher in adolescents than children with a history of ELS. Additionally, functional magnetic resonance imaging results showed atypical NAcc development, where the ELS group did not show a typical increase in NAcc reactivity during adolescence. Consequently, the ELS group showed NAcc hypoactivation during adolescence, and lower NAcc reactivity was correlated with higher depression scores. The results have important implications for understanding how ELS may influence increases in depression via neural development during the transition to adolescence and highlight the importance of identifying at-risk individuals in childhood, a potential critical period for depression-targeted intervention.
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