A new report in yesterday's issue of Archives of General Psychiatry suggests that it may be possible to identify children at risk for depression well before they develop the illness. Boris Birmaher and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh followed up on a 1994 study showing that children and adolescents having acute depressive episodes secrete less growth hormone. This time, they administered growth hormone releasing hormone (GHRH)--a substance that causes the production of growth hormone--to 119 children, 64 of whom were deemed to be at high risk for developing depression as a result of a family history of mood disorders. As it turned out, the high-risk children--even those who had never been depressed--showed levels of growth hormone that were as low as those produced by currently or recently depressed kids. For both groups, these levels were significantly lower than those seen in control subjects.

"This discovery adds a significant piece of information to our understanding of depression in children and adolescents," Birmaher says. "Remaining research needs to be done to learn if the blunted growth hormone response to GHRH will predict the development of depression in children of depressed parents. Moreover, we need to understand the biological underpinning of the low GH secretion after the administration of GHRH and whether this response has a genetic basis or it is due to early exposure to family stress."