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Networks of Depression and Anxiety Symptoms Across Development.



Frequent co-occurrence and bidirectional longitudinal associations have led some researchers to question the boundaries between depression and anxiety. A longitudinal investigation of the interconnected symptom structure of these constructs may help determine the extent to which they are distinct, and whether this changes over development. Therefore, the present study used network analysis to examine these symptom-symptom associations developmentally from early childhood to mid-adolescence.


We analyzed data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (N = 1,147). Depression and anxiety symptoms were assessed on 7 occasions between ages 5 and 14 years using maternal reports. Regularized partial correlation networks were constructed at each time point, and diagnostic boundaries were explored using empirical tests of network modularity (ie, clustering of symptom nodes). Nonparametric permutation tests were used to determine whether symptoms became more associated over development, and network centrality was examined to identify developmental changes in the overall importance of specific symptoms.


Symptoms formed highly interconnected networks, as evidenced by strong associations between depression and anxiety symptoms and a lack of distinct clustering. There was some evidence of an increase in overall connectivity as children aged. Feeling "anxious/fearful" and "unhappy/sad" were consistently the most central symptoms over development.


Minimal clustering of nodes indicated no separation of depression and anxiety symptoms from early childhood through mid-adolescence. An increase in connectivity over development suggests that symptoms may reinforce each other, potentially contributing to the high levels of lifetime continuity of these disorders.

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