Depression? It's All in the Eyes -- the Pupil -- For a Kid

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could pick out the kids who are going to be depressed later in life before they do something everyone regrets? 

In California alone, 12 children between the ages of 5 and 14 committed suicide in 2012.  Even one is too many.

But now scientists have found that we might be able to predict this deadly outcome just by looking in our children's eyes.

Really?  Yes.  But maybe not in the way you would think,

I'm lucky.  My teenager seems pretty happy-to-lucky.  While he's pretty intense (a teacher once called him "cerebral) and lives a lot in his head, he's still grounded enough to be on a local championship soccer team (and to smash the ball around on our front lawn with numerous friends).  But I know that can change in a flash.

What researchers have found is that how much a child’s pupil dilates in response to seeing an emotional image can predict his or her risk of depression over the next two years, according to new research from Binghamton University, as reported at

The new findings suggest that physiological reactivity to sad stimuli, assessed using pupillometry, serves as one potential biomarker of depression risk among children of depressed mothers, according to Brandon Gibb, professor of psychology at Binghamton University and director of the Mood Disorders Institute and Center for Affective Science.

This kind of assessment can help identify which children of depressed mothers are at highest risk for developing depression themselves.

“We think this line of research could eventually lead to universal screenings in pediatricians’ offices to assess future depression risk in kids,” says Gibb.

 It may sound a little weird to you (as it did to me), but pediatricians are starting to embrace this.

For the study, children whose mothers had a history of major depressive disorder were recruited and had their pupil dilation measured as they viewed angry, happy and sad faces. Follow-up assessments occurred over the next two years, during which structured interviews were used to find the children’s level of depressive symptoms, as well as the onset of depressive diagnoses

Children exhibiting relatively greater pupil dilation to sad faces experienced higher levels of depressive symptoms across the follow-up as well as a shorter time to the onset of a clinically significant depressive episode. These findings were specific to children’s pupil responses to sad faces, not angry or happy faces.

As a mom who has struggled with depression off and on throughout her own life, I would want to know long before my child started cutting himself or walking on railroad tracks that I need to man up about what he's going through.  I'm not sure you can totally depend on the pupils -- let's face it, a good parent should be aware of just about everything your kid's going through (especially if you're a helicopter one, like me).   

But if you have a teenager like mine, who is very private and reserved and rarely talks about what's going on in his life (let alone, his feelings!), it's a relief to know there may be other ways to  take his emotional temperature -- at least, somewhat subtly!


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