Pupil Response To Sad Faces Linked To Increased Risk of Depression In Children

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Katie Burkhouse,
Graduate Student and
Dr. Brandon Gibb Ph.D
Professor of Psychology
Director of the Mood Disorders Institute and Center for Affective Science
Binghamton University

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Gibb:  One of the strongest risk factors for depression is a family history of the disorder.  However, even among this at-risk group, the majority of children of depressed parents do not develop depression themselves.  For those who do become depressed, the depression can severely and negatively affect their social and academic functioning, become chronic or recurrent over the lifespan, and increase risk for suicide.  What is needed therefore, is a good indicator of which children may be at greatest risk for depression so that interventions can be targeted to these individuals.  We believe that pupil dilation may represent one such marker.  Changes in pupil dilation are associated with activity in the brain’s emotional circuits and have been linked in previous research to the presence of depression.  What my graduate student Katie Burkhouse found is that, even among children who are not currently experiencing symptoms of depression, the degree to which their pupil dilates when they look at pictures of sad faces predicts their risk for developing clinically significant episodes of depression over the next two years.  The findings were specific to pupil responses to sad faces and were not observed when children looked at happy or angry faces suggesting that there is something specific to how the children were processing sad images.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Gibb: This study adds to a growing body of research suggesting that subtle changes in pupil dilation can provide a window into how the brain processes emotional information and can help us determine which individuals are at greatest risk for depression themselves.  We believe that one day these types of tests could be included as part of children’s regular pediatrician visits and help identify which children may be at risk for depression.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Gibb:  Katie’s study is exciting because it’s the first to show that pupillary reactivity to images of sad faces predicts the onset of depression.  However, before we can develop a standardized test of depression risk based on these findings, more research is needed to make sure that the findings replicate and to determine whether pupil dilation can be used to predict depression risk in children even if they do not have a family history of the disorder.  We are optimistic about this research and hope that we will be able to standardize the test so that it can be used as a general screen for depression risk.


Katie L. Burkhouse, Greg J. Siegle, Mary L. Woody, Anastacia Y. Kudinova, Brandon E. Gibb. Pupillary Reactivity to Sad Stimuli as a Biomarker of Depression Risk: Evidence From a Prospective Study of Children.. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2015; DOI: 10.1037/abn0000072

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Katie Burkhouse, Graduate Student andBrandon Gibb Ph.D (2015). Pupil Response To Sad Faces Linked To Increased Risk of Depression In Children