Facial emotion expression recognition by children at familial risk for depression: high-risk boys are oversensitive to sadness


  • Conflict of interest statement: No direct conflicts declared; see Acknowledgement for disclosure of indirect potential COI.


Background:  Offspring of depressed parents are at greatly increased risk for mood disorders. Among potential mechanisms of risk, recent studies have focused on information processing anomalies, such as attention and memory biases, in the offspring of depressed parents. In this study we examined another information processing domain, perceptual sensitivity to emotion cues in facial expressions, as a potential mechanism of risk that characterizes the offspring of depressed parents.

Methods:  The study included 64 children at familial-risk for depression and 40 low-risk peers between the ages 7 and 13(Mage = 9.51; SD = 2.27). Participants were presented with pictures of facial expressions that varied in emotional intensity from neutral to full-intensity sadness or anger (i.e., emotion recognition), or pictures of faces morphing from anger to sadness (emotion discrimination). After each picture was presented, children indicated whether the face showed a specific emotion (i.e., sadness, anger) or no emotion at all (neutral) using a forced choice paradigm. We examined group differences in the intensity of emotion that suggested greater sensitivity to specific emotions.

Results:  In the emotion recognition task, boys (but not girls) at familial-risk for depression identified sadness at significantly lower levels of emotional intensity than did their low-risk peers. The high and low-risk groups did not differ with regard to identification of anger. In the emotion discrimination task, both groups displayed over-identification of sadness in ambiguous mixed faces but high-risk youth were less likely to show this labeling bias than their peers.

Conclusion:  Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that enhanced perceptual sensitivity to subtle traces of sadness in facial expressions may be a potential mechanism of risk among boys at familial-risk for depression. This enhanced perceptual sensitivity does not appear to be due to biases in the labeling of ambiguous faces.