Can you predict whether a child will develop anxiety or depression based on a brain scan at birth?

A study published this February in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry examined connections between the amygdalae and other areas of the brain to find correlations between those connections and possible symptoms of anxiety and depression in a group of just over 100 infants. The researchers did brain scans on them as newborns and then followed that up at age 2 to see if any of their findings predicted the internalizing of anxiety/depression symptoms.

Several news outlets were quick to jump on this study. Which makes sense–we love chasing certainty about whether something bad will happen to our kids. To their credit, the researchers have explained in articles that there are a variety of factors that would affect whether an infant developed an actual mental illness. Predicting mental illness at birth is like predicting obesity at birth–you can certainly identify factors, internally and externally, that might increase the risk. That doesn’t tell us anything, however, about how to build health. Avoiding anxiety or depression wouldn’t mean your kid had great mental health. Just like you can avoid obesity in a child but that wouldn’t necessarily indicate they have a great physical fitness level. As much as we want to remove uncertainty about the causes of mental health challenges, it’s important to keep the focusing on building health. Every kid needs to learn how to handle emotions in a healthy way because every kid has mental health. If you have children, they are 100% guaranteed to varying levels of improvable mental health. Start working with them early on handling uncertainty in a healthy way. You can be a wonderful guide on that journey by learning how to handle and express your own emotions in a healthy way.