Research News

Vanderbilt Peabody researcher receives grant to study depression link in mothers and children

By Jenna Somers

woman wearing cream-colored top with long brown hair
Kaylin Hill, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral scholar Kaylin Hill has received a K23 Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Mental Health. The five-year grant exceeding $900,000 will support Hill’s research into the neurobehavioral pathway from depression in mothers and birthing parents to the development of increased risk for depression in their young children.

Maternal depression is a well-established risk factor for depression in children, but the genetic and environmental factors associated with this risk are not well known. Hill will assess neural and behavioral indicators of depression in 125 pairs of mothers and their 18-month-old children to establish foundational insights into the brain and behavioral basis for depression vulnerability in mother–child relationships. This novel research has the potential to help identify children at highest risk for depression and develop targeted preventions to support their mental health.

“Examining caregiver and child functioning together provides the unique opportunity to examine co-experienced emotions, which may be especially important for understanding relationship dynamics and neural functioning, to ultimately serve our mission to support mental health in families,” said Hill, a researcher in the Mood, Emotion, and Development Laboratory and the Stress and Early Adversity (SEA) Laboratory at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development.

Hill will use electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain responses of mothers and their children within positive and rewarding interactions. First, she will examine the relation between mothers’ depressive symptoms and neural responses to their children experiencing positive affect (smiling, laughing, enjoying activities). Then, she will examine mothers’ prenatal and postpartum depressive symptoms in relation to observed shared positive emotions in mother–child interactions, as well as test the effects of mothers’ neural responses to child cues on this association. Lastly, Hill will examine the effects of shared positive emotions and mothers’ neural function on the children’s neural development.

Hill is collaborating on this study with researchers from Vanderbilt and other institutions:

  • Rebecca Brooker, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Texas A&M University
  • David Cole, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Psychology
  • Kathryn Humphreys, associate professor of psychology and human development and director of the Stress and Early Adversity Lab
  • Autumn Kujawa, associate professor of psychology and human development and director of the Mood, Emotion, and Development Lab
  • Erika Lunkenheimer, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University

Humphreys and Kujawa are serving as Hill’s primary mentors on the study and on her research career development.