Galynker said this research is important, because it might one day lead to better diagnosis and would give therapists a new psychological tool to talk about the patient's relationship with her mother.
"There is no tool for imaging depression -- like diagnosing a broken ankle or low cardiac function or a metastic tumor, so this is the first paper that does something like that -- a real life sample," said Galynker. "It's an unusual achievement."
Scientists speculate that depression can be caused by a combination of factors, including childhood trauma, genetics and stress.
Freud believed that the earliest relationship with mother was critical for the development of a healthy psyche, even though some of his theories, like "penis envy," the "Oedipus complex," have since been discredited.
Modern psychiatrists agree that insecure attachment in the first few years of life can lead to anxiety, personality disorders and depression in adulthood. Secure attachment -- or maternal bonding, which begins in the earliest weeks of life until the age of about 1 or 2 -- leads to success in life.
The poignant irony of this study about mothers does not escape Gruss, who was strongly attached to her own mother.
"She was elegant and creative, funny and talented," she said.
Her mother, Hope Butvydas, had a catatonic breakdown in her late 30s and never fully recovered. Gruss said the stress and uncertainty of emigrating with her cavalry-officer husband and two young daughters from Lithuania after World War II may have been to blame.
"Mother was always kind of high strung and intense," said Gruss. "It was the shock of leaving her homeland during the war and giving birth to a child in Germany and coming to the United States and not speaking the language."
Today, the HDRF is supporting a variety of research projects, including epigenetics and other studies in "separation distress" using animal models. It has also established a depression task force that includes seven of the "most brilliant minds in the field," according to Gruss.
"There has not been one new medication since Prozac, which came out in 1985," she said. "There has been no change in the basic treatment of depression. It's staggering how little we know."
Galynker's research is not "only a beginning," but a "major breakthrough," she said.
For her, the photos of her mother elicit warm feelings. It was she who encouraged Gruss to study biology in college and ultimately gave her the tools to support scientific research.
"Even now, when I walk past her photos, something happens to me, I loved her so much," said Gruss. "She was my guiding light."