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Cognitive theories of depression contend that biased cognitive information processing plays a causal role in the development of depression. Extensive research shows that deeper processing of negative and/or shallower processing of positive self-descriptors (i.e., negative and positive self-schemas) predicts current and future depression in adults and children. However, the neural correlates of the development of self-referent encoding are poorly understood. We examined children's self-referential processing using the self-referent encoding task (SRET) collected from 74 children at ages 6, 9, and 12; around age 10, these children also contributed structural magnetic resonance imaging data. From age 6 to age 12, both positive and negative self-referential processing showed mean-level growth, with positive self-schemas increasing relatively faster than negative ones. Further, voxel-based morphometry showed that slower growth in positive self-schemas was associated with lower regional gray matter volume (GMV) in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC). Our results suggest that smaller regional GMV within vlPFC, a critical region for regulatory control in affective processing and emotion development, may have implications for the development of depressogenic self-referential processing in mid-to-late childhood.
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