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GEM Study

Descriptive longitudinal studies have identified three distinct "phases" in the development of depression during childhood and adolescence. First, few preadolescent children develop depression (i.e., prevalence rate of 1-2%). Second, a sex difference in depression rates emerges around middle puberty (i.e., ages 12-13). By age 15 girls are twice as likely as boys to experience depression. Third, rates of depression increase dramatically beginning in middle adolescence from around 3% at age 15 to 17% at age 18.

The overarching goal of this project is to advance understanding of the ontogeny of depression over time from childhood through early adolescence from an integrated vulnerability-transactional stress model of depression. More specifically, we focus on understanding the transactional interplay of genetic, cognitive, and interpersonal vulnerabilities with stressors and how these vulnerability and stress processes can combine together to predict growth in depressive symptoms and onset of depressive episodes in adolescence. This project is also meant to elucidate whether the emerging sex difference in depression can be explained by developmental changes in the interplay of psychosocial and genetic vulnerability factors with stressors across time and age. Finally, this project investigates reciprocal, transactional associations between stressors and depression over time, across ages and sex, and by vulnerability level. To do this, we have been following approximately 350 3rd, 6th, and 9th graders since 2008 every 3 months after their initial assessment for 36 months, totaling 12 assessments. From there, we continue to follow them with an annual follow up for 3 years from that point. These assessments include multi-dimensional questionnaires, executive functioning-based computer tasks, and semi-structured clinical interviews about mental health and life stress.

The GEM study collaborates with The John Abela Institute of Research on Youth Depression at Rutgers University in New Jersey led by Dr. Jami Young. We are excited to be able to compare our Colorado findings to those of New Jersey in order to learn even more about how mood disorders develop in children and adolescents.

Personalized Depression Prevention

We would like to know if certain types of programs work better for adolescents with different types of risk factors for depression. To do this, we are comparing two types of group prevention programs, Teen Talk and Coping with Stress. Both of these programs have been previously researched and those who have participated have shown an improvement in coping skills (and overall functioning), which may result in prevention of future onsets of a depressive episode (among other things). Upon the completion of a pre-group assessment (consisting of questionnaires, an optional fMRI scan, and an interview), each adolescent will be randomly assigned to one of two programs:

Coping with Stress focuses on how the way we think affects our mood and teaches adolescents skills to deal with stressful situations.

Teen Talk focuses on how the way we communicate with others affects our mood and teaches adolescents skills to deal with interpersonal relationships.

Each of the above mentioned programs will consist of 8 weekly group sessions that last 90 minutes each. After the 8 weeks, the adolescents will also participate in 3 "booster" sessions over the course of a 6 month period in which new skills may be taught; along with any necessary guidance an adolescent may need implementing the skills learned in the groups. A second optional fMRI scan may be conducted as well. Adolescents and parents will be assessed at the halfway point of the groups, as well as right after the completion of the program and at 6-month intervals for the following 3 years (a total of 7 post-group assessments).

How Teens Think and Remember

As part of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)'s research priority to focus on RDOC (Research Domain Criteria) project that seeks to advance knowledge on particular systems, across multiple levels of analysis, that may relate to dimensional forms of psychopathology transdiagnostically, we are investigating the RDOC domain of Cognitive Control. Cognitive control is essential for successfully navigating nearly all of our daily activities. Cognitive control processes regulate lower level processes and thereby enable self-directed behavior towards a goal, allowing us to break out of habits, make decisions and evaluate risks, plan for the future, prioritize and sequence our actions, and cope with novel situations. In this NIMH funded R21, we are examining: a) the extent to which two distinct ways of assessing cognitive control, (1) executive function (EF) task performance and (2) the temperament dimension of effortful control (EC), may be interchangeable markers of the same latent construct, or separable, but related latent constructs; and b) investigating the extent to which cognitive control, as conceptualized and assessed by multiple measures of EF and EC, is related to adolescent psychopathology (depression, anxiety, ADHD, alcohol and substance use). We will be recruiting 300 adolescents to complete an in-depth assessment of EF battery, EC questionnaires, and psychopathology measures. Additionally, adolescents will be assessed with two lab-based measures of attentional control over emotional stimuli using eye-tracking methods and Heart Rate Variability (HRV).