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Does Untreated Depression Pass On To A Fetus?

Question:

I was born in 1959 to a very depress mother. She had a child die 2 years before I was born. She was under medication, which she has no idea what it was back in the day. But I suffer with depression since a child and was wondering if her depression passed on to me in the womb? Is it a possibilty? She was so devasted about losing her child, that she did not want me. I was born, but as early as I remember I was nicknamed Misery. I need some answers. Please help.

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Answer:

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p>I cannot offer you certainty, unfortunately. Just some educated guesses.

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p>While depression is an illness, it is not caused (except in some uncommon circumstances) by any sort of infectious process such as a virus or bacterium. It is not possible for depression to be inherited in that manner, as is the case with AIDS or other viral infections.

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p>Depression is commonly thought of as a “chemical imbalance” and while this notion is too simplistic to be accurate, there is some truth to it. There are changes in brain chemistry usually associated with severe depressions, and these changes are altered by various therapys (medical and psychological both) as people get better. The chemical changes that are associated with depression seem to create physical brain changes – micro-scale changes in what is called receptor sensitivity anyway, not large changes. However, the way inheritance works, we inherit genes, and not characteristics of our bodies that occur after we are born. So even though these changes in the brain do occur, such acquired traits are not directly inherited either.

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p>Brain chemistry changes could be associated with body chemistry changes, and body chemistry changes are responsible for all manner of things that can affect a developing fetus. So – it might be possible for depression to affect a developing fetus through its indirect effect on hormones and the like. I’m not aware of research that has looked into this possible path for depression vulnerability, mind you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if researchers were able to establish some linkages.

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p>Depression runs in families, and one reason that this appears to be so is that certain personality traits seem to be transmitted by genes. Specifically, a personality trait known variously as “emotional stability” or “neuroticism” seems to be genetically determined in large part. If you are constitutionally high in neuroticism, you are more likely than someone who isn’t neurotic in this sense to develop a depression and/or anxiety problem. So, in this sense, a vunerability to depression can be inherited.

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p>There is a real difference between genotype (what our genetic blueprints call for in terms of body design) and phenotype (what ends up getting built out based on the blueprints as they are interpreted by the environment). If you are born to a depressed mother, you may have been neglected somewhat as a child, and this could easily be expected to have a dramatic effect on your developing brain. Babies who learn that their needs will be taken care of in a timely manner have a better developmetal experience than babies who learn that they are going to be ignored. Also, babies who are exposed to an “enriched” environment (one filled with lots of interaction and stimulation) tend to grow better, more robust brains than babies who are raised in an impoverished environment. The quality of the early environment plays an important role in determining how intelligent a person ends up being, for example. I wouldnt’ be at all surprised if some reasearch suggested that early environment played an important role in determining how vulnerable someone is to depression or anxiety, although I can’t think of any such research off the top of my head.

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p>So – the short answer to your question (my best guess answer), is “Yes”, depression can most likely be inherited, although probably not in the manner that you were thinking. I hope this helps settle your mind some.

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Comments
  • EJ

    I've heard that some of the hormons related to stress can be transmitted to the baby growing in the womb, perhaps changing the way s/he develops, and possibly resulting in the child being more anxious in general than the average Joe. Since there is a link between depression and anxiety what do you think are the chances that there can be an impact on the fetus in this way? EJ

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