An FMRI study of emotional face processing in adolescent major depression

Leah M J Hall, Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, Ruskin H. Hunt, Kathleen M. Thomas, Alaa Houri, Emily Noack, Bryon A. Mueller, Kelvin O. Lim, Kathryn R. Cullen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Background Major depressive disorder (MDD) often begins during adolescence when the brain is still maturing. To better understand the neurobiological underpinnings of MDD early in development, this study examined brain function in response to emotional faces in adolescents with MDD and healthy (HC) adolescents using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Method Thirty-two unmedicated adolescents with MDD and 23 healthy age- and gender-matched controls completed an fMRI task viewing happy and fearful faces. Fronto-limbic regions of interest (ROI; bilateral amygdala, insula, subgenual and rostral anterior cingulate cortices) and whole-brain analyses were conducted to examine between-group differences in brain function. Results ROI analyses revealed that patients had greater bilateral amygdala activity than HC in response to viewing fearful versus happy faces, which remained significant when controlling for comorbid anxiety. Whole-brain analyses revealed that adolescents with MDD had lower activation compared to HC in a right hemisphere cluster comprised of the insula, superior/middle temporal gyrus, and Heschls gyrus when viewing fearful faces. Brain activity in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex was inversely correlated with depression severity. Limitations Limitations include a cross-sectional design with a modest sample size and use of a limited range of emotional stimuli. Conclusions Results replicate previous studies that suggest emotion processing in adolescent MDD is associated with abnormalities within fronto-limbic brain regions. Findings implicate elevated amygdalar arousal to negative stimuli in adolescents with depression and provide new evidence for a deficit in functioning of the saliency network, which may be a future target for early intervention and MDD treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)44-50
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
StatePublished - Oct 15 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported in part by the University of Minnesota Supercomputing Institute .


  • Adolescence
  • FMRI
  • Fronto-limbic neural circuitry
  • Major depression

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'An FMRI study of emotional face processing in adolescent major depression'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this