NEWS | July 21, 2020

UC Davis Health study seeks better detection of depression in children with autism

Researchers will use brain scans to help understand depression in teenagers with autism, which could lead to better intervention strategies.


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding a new UC Davis MIND Institute study that may lead to better tools for the diagnosis and treatment of depression in children and adolescents with autism.

Depression in teens with autism Depression in teens with autism

Around 70% of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will develop depression at some point in their lives. For many, the turning point may be their teen years.

“We want to understand how the brains of teens differ in development between middle childhood and adolescence such that some develop depression and others don’t,” said Marjorie Solomon, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health and lead researcher on the study.

Brain scans may hold clues

The study will utilize a well-established test to gauge the teens’ emotional well-being. It will involve showing the adolescents photos of people who are happy, angry or sad. The adolescents will then be asked about their own feelings after seeing the pictures, while a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine takes images of their brains. Solomon says that may help answer a key question: “What do the behavioral and neural signatures of depression look like in children with ASD and in typically developing kids?”

Advancing a groundbreaking longitudinal study

The research builds on the work of the Autism Phenome Project (APP), the largest and most comprehensive assessment of children with autism in the world. It will involve teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18 of varying cognitive abilities. These teenagers have been part of the APP since they were 2-3 years old.

The APP research team has been tracking the social and emotional well-being of these teens for many years. Solomon says that’s what makes this study so impactful.

“We will be able to look back at these assessments of many aspects of child behavior and functioning to see if there are trajectories of depression.”

If researchers can pinpoint those trajectories, they may be able to intervene before depression takes hold. “If we can predict who’s at risk for this problem, we can step in and try to support their development so that they don’t develop severe symptoms of depression, which could hold them back later on.”

Co-investigators on the study are Simona Ghetti, Department of Psychology; Amanda Guyer, Center for Mind and Brain; David Amaral, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; Christine Wu Nordahl, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; Emilio Ferrer, Department of Psychology; and Anna Maria Iosif, Public Health Sciences from UC Davis.

Grant: National Institutes of Health R01, 2R01MH103284-06A1: “Neural and behavioral predictors of cognitive development and internalizing problems in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder.”