Like Mother Like Daughter: Understanding the Mechanism Behind Intergenerational Transmission of Risk for Depression


All of us are familiar with the saying, “Like mother, like daughter.” This idiomatic expression shows that a daughter has similar talents, looks, or personality traits to her mother. Apart from positive associations between mothers and daughters, the said idiom can also refer to negative traits. 

In an interesting study published under Oxford Academic, they explored the role of the putamen in the maternal transmission of reward learning and found important implications, including the understanding of disorders characterized by disturbances in reward learning and processing, such as major depression. This article will provide a comprehensive summary of its crucial findings on how having a depressed parent can predict the development of the depressive disorder in a child. 


Several studies suggest that one of the strongest indicators for having depression during adolescence and early adulthood is having a stressed parent. Children of depressed parents are three to five times more likely to experience depression or a similar disorder. 

Since the negative impacts of parental depression on their offspring are well established in research, it is only important to understand better how the risk of having depression can be passed down to an offspring. Apart from the 30 – 40 percent heritability estimates for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), other factors, such as being raised by a depressed parent, can potentially add to a higher risk of depression among children with depressed parents. This makes it even more important to analyze heritable traits, including brain structure and function, that is also affected by environmental processes.

Other findings from studies that examine the neural similarities between parents and their offspring state that:

  • The similarities in tissue volumes of mother-daughter pairs are stronger than in both father-daughter and mother-son in specific brain regions such as the amygdala, bilateral ACC, vmPFC, OFC, right hippocampus, and bilateral parahippocampus gyrus (Yamagata et al., 2016).
  • Daughters with mothers with a history of repetitive depression and at high risk of depression have similar cortical thinning identified in their mothers (Foland-Ross et al., 2016).

On the other hand, the primary symptom of MDD, which is anhedonia, or loss of interest or pleasure in rewarding stimuli, is also taken into consideration by other researchers and found that:

  • People with MDD respond to rewarding stimuli with lesser positive affect than those without MDD, indicating that they have a problem with reinforcement learning or understanding the optimal behavior in an environment to obtain the maximum reward (Chen et al., 2015).
  • The abnormal development of striatal responses to reward – such as failing to exhibit the typical rise in striatal response to reward – predicts the beginning of depressive symptoms in teenagers (Hanson et al., 2015).
  • Healthy adolescent daughters of mothers with a history of depression showed reduced striatal and left insula activation during anticipation of reward and loss than daughters of mothers without a history of the condition (Gotlib et al., 2010).
  • Both girls who are currently depressed and girls at familial risk of depression have lower striatal activity in response to reward outcomes compared to those without the condition (Sharp et al., 2014).

The findings above have been used by the researchers of the Oxford Academic study to extend the understanding of parental depression as a predictor of depression in an offspring.

The Underlying Mechanism of Intergenerational Risk for Depression

Although the connection between parental depression and the development of depression in their offspring has been well-established, there is still a need to understand the mechanisms behind these connections. The Oxford Academic study aimed to fill this gap by exploring putamen activation as a mechanism underlying intergenerational risk for depression. 

The putamen is a large brain structure involved in learning and motor control, including speech articulation, language functions, reward, cognitive functioning, and addiction.

The study examined the association between mothers’ and daughters’ neural patterns of functional activation during a reward processing task and found the following findings:

  • There is a significant association between mothers’ and daughters’ putamen response to the anticipation of loss similar across the mother-daughter pair where a mother has a history of recurrent depression, and the daughter has none, and the mother-daughter pair with no history of depression.
  • The pubertal status, excluding the daughter’s age, impacts the said association where developmentally mature daughters have putamen responses to loss that were more similar to their mothers’ putamen responses to loss, while early pubertal daughters and their mothers did not exhibit such putamen similarity. 
  • No association was found between mothers and their daughters in activations in motor regions, suggesting the putamen’s unique role in the maternal transmission of reward learning/responsiveness.
  • Parallel severity of depression in mothers or daughters is not associated with their putamen concordance.

Since both daughters of mothers with and without a history of depression showed putamen function similar to that of their mothers, this suggests a pattern of genetic or learned heritability in this region. Since putamen response to loss is related to reinforcement learning patterns and abnormalities in reinforcement learning are associated with depression – similarities in the neural response of a daughter and a depressed mother’s maladaptive response pattern can be a mechanism behind the intergenerational transmission of risk for depression.

Key Takeaway

In summary, there is a significant association between mothers’ and daughters’ putamen response to the anticipation of loss that was similar across two mother-daughter pairs. The lack of a connection in motor areas between mothers and daughters points to the putamen’s special function in the maternal transfer of reward learning and responsiveness. The results suggest that reward processing is inherited or learned through putamen response. These findings have an important impact on understanding disorders marked by neural and behavioral disturbances in reward processing, such as major depression, and developing potential neural targets for treatment. 

Journal Reference

Colich, N. L., Ho, T. C., Ellwood-Lowe, M. E., Foland-Ross, L. C., Sacchet, M. D., LeMoult, J. L., & Gotlib, I. H. (2017). Like mother like daughter: Putamen activation as a mechanism underlying intergenerational risk for depression. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12(9), 1480–1489.

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