Neural and affective responses to prolonged eye contact with parents in depressed and nondepressed adolescents

Mirjam C.M. Wever*, Geert Jan Will, Lisanne A.E.M. van Houtum, Loes H.C. Janssen, Wilma G.M. Wentholt, Iris M. Spruit, Marieke S. Tollenaar, Bernet M. Elzinga

*Corresponding author for this work

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Eye contact improves mood, facilitates connectedness, and is assumed to strengthen the parent–child bond. Adolescent depression is linked to difficulties in social interactions, the parent–child bond included. Our goal was to elucidate adolescents’ affective and neural responses to prolonged eye contact with one’s parent in nondepressed adolescents (HC) and how these responses are affected in depressed adolescents. While in the scanner, 59 nondepressed and 19 depressed adolescents were asked to make eye contact with their parent, an unfamiliar peer, an unfamiliar adult, and themselves by using videos of prolonged direct and averted gaze, as an approximation of eye contact. After each trial, adolescents reported on their mood and feelings of connectedness, and eye movements and BOLD-responses were assessed. In HCs, eye contact boosted mood and feelings of connectedness and increased activity in inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), temporal pole, and superior frontal gyrus. Unlike HCs, eye contact did not boost the mood of depressed adolescents. While HCs reported increased mood and feelings of connectedness to the sight of their parent versus others, depressed adolescents did not. Depressed adolescents exhibited blunted overall IFG activity. These findings show that adolescents are particularly sensitive to eye contact and respond strongly to the sight of their parents. This sensitivity seems to be blunted in depressed adolescents. For clinical purposes, it is important to gain a better understanding of how the responsivity to eye contact in general and with their parents in particular, can be restored in adolescents with depression.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)567-581
Number of pages15
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2024
Externally publishedYes

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