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Boris Birmaher

Ronald E. Dahl

David Brent

Biological Marker Associated With Depression In Children Uncovered By University Of Pittsburgh Researchers

PITTSBURGH, September 14, 2000 — Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have been able to demonstrate for the first time a biological change in children at risk for major depression before they develop the illness.

Results of the research, published in today’s issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, show that children who face a greater risk for the illness through family history of major depression produce significantly less growth hormone (GH) than their normal peers when given growth hormone releasing hormone (GHRH). The researchers do not know whether the response is due to genetics or if it is a sign of family stress. In the future, this marker could give doctors an upper hand in treating children at risk for major depression before they become ill.

"This discovery adds a significant piece of information to our understanding of depression in children and adolescents," said Boris Birmaher, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "Remaining research needs to be done to learn if the blunted growth hormone response to GHRH will predict the development of depression in children of depressed parents. Moreover, we need to understand the biological underpinning of the low GH secretion after the administration of GHRH and whether this response has a genetic basis or it is due to early exposure to family stress."

This study builds on University of Pittsburgh research from 1994 that discovered children and adolescents with acute episodes of major depression secrete less growth hormone during their illness.

In the study, the researchers administered GHRH to 119 children between the ages of 8 and 16. Of the 119, 64 were at high risk for developing depression due to family history of mood disorders. The remaining 55 subjects were normal and they did not have family history of depression.

Dr. Birmaher and colleagues discovered that children who are at high risk for depression showed similar decreased production of growth hormone when given GHRH as currently or recently depressed children. The never-depressed children at high risk to develop depression and the children who were already depressed both secreted significantly less growth hormone than the normal controls. Moreover, the depressed children continued to secrete less growth hormone after the stimulation with GHRH even after the depression improved. These findings suggest that the blunted GH after GHRH is a trait marker for depression in children.

Other authors include Ronald E. Dahl, M.D.; Douglas E. Williamson, Ph.D.; James M. Perel, Ph.D.; David A. Brent, M.D.; David A. Axelson, M.D.; Joan Kaufman, Ph.D.; Lorah D. Dorn, Ph.D.; Stacy Stull, M.S.; Uma Rao, M.D.; and Neal D. Ryan, M.D.

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