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OBJECTIVE: Major depressive disorder has been associated with lower prefrontal thickness and hippocampal volume, but it is unknown whether this association also holds for depressive symptoms in the general population. We investigated associations of depressive symptoms and depression status with brain structures across population-based and patient-control cohorts, and explored whether these associations are similar over the lifespan and across sexes. METHODS: We included 3,447 participants aged 18-89 years from six population-based and two clinical patient-control cohorts of the European Lifebrain consortium. Cross-sectional meta-analyses using individual person data were performed for associations of depressive symptoms and depression status with FreeSurfer-derived thickness of bilateral rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) and medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), and hippocampal and total grey matter volume (GMV), separately for population-based and clinical cohorts. RESULTS: Across patient-control cohorts, depressive symptoms and presence of mild-to-severe depression were associated with lower mOFC thickness (rsymptoms = -0.15/ rstatus = -0.22), rACC thickness (rsymptoms = -0.20/ rstatus = -0.25), hippocampal volume (rsymptoms = -0.13/ rstatus = 0.13) and total GMV (rsymptoms = -0.21/ rstatus = -0.25). Effect sizes were slightly larger for presence of moderate-to-severe depression. Associations were similar across age groups and sex. Across population-based cohorts, no associations between depression and brain structures were observed. CONCLUSIONS: Fitting with previous meta-analyses, depressive symptoms and depression status were associated with lower mOFC, rACC thickness, and hippocampal and total grey matter volume in clinical patient-control cohorts, although effect sizes were small. The absence of consistent associations in population-based cohorts with mostly mild depressive symptoms, suggests that significantly lower thickness and volume of the studied brain structures are only detectable in clinical populations with more severe depressive symptoms.

Original publication




Journal article


Neuroimage Clin

Publication Date





Brain structure, Depressive symptoms, Grey matter, Lifespan, Meta-analysis, Neuroimaging, Humans, Adult, Depressive Disorder, Major, Cross-Sectional Studies, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Brain, Gray Matter, Depression