Attentional Biases in Children of Depressed Mothers: An Event-Related Potential (ERP) Study

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Although a number of studies have reported that children of depressed, compared to nondepressed, parents exhibit biased attention to sad facial stimuli, the direction of this bias remains unclear; some studies find evidence of preferential attention toward sad faces whereas others find evidence of attention avoidance. In the current study, we used event-related potentials (ERPs) to assess children’s attention to emotional stimuli using a spatial cueing task. Across all indices of attention bias (N2pc and sustained posterior contralateral negativity [SPCN] time locked to face onset, P3b time locked to probe onset, reaction times [RTs] to probes), children of mothers with a history of major depressive disorder (MDD) during the child’s life exhibited less attention to sad faces than children of never depressed mothers. For two of these indices (SPCN and RTs), the attention biases for the offspring of depressed mothers was not specific to sadness and was observed for all emotional expressions. Group differences in the ERP indices were maintained when controlling for the influence of mothers’ and children’s current symptoms of depression and anxiety, mothers’ history of anxiety disorders, and children’s history of MDD and anxiety disorders, suggesting that the results are specific to mothers’ history of MDD.

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