Anxiety in Children Associated with Brain Changes
Earlier studies have shown stress and anxiety experienced during childhood to be reliable predictors for the development of disorders like anxiety or depression in later years. In previous studies examining anxiety in animal models, placing the subjects in a setting with chronic stress resulted in additional synaptic growth and an increase in synaptic activity.
The amygdala is located in the temporal lobe and consists of several sub regions that are responsible for tasks like learning and regulating emotions. The enlargement measured in the children occurs in the basolateral amygdala, which processes emotions and communicates them to the neocortex. This enlargement was discovered by Shaozheng Qin, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar who led the study.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to examine and compare various regions of the amygdala in the brains of the participants. Qin found increased strength in multiple connections from the basolateral amygdala and other areas of the neocortex in children with increased anxiety levels.
Vinod Menon, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the study’s senior author, explains that the detection of an enlarged amygdale will not necessarily predict that a child will develop anxiety later in adulthood, but it does broaden the understanding of how childhood experiences relate to later mental health problems.
The study, which appeared in Biological Psychiatry, included 76 participants ages of seven through nine years old. Menon explains that a child must be at least seven years old before the cognitive emotional assessments can be considered accurate, but the changes that were observed may begin much earlier.
In order to measure stress the parents of the children completed the Childhood Behavior Checklist, a tool that can provide information about a child’s well-being related to cognitive, social and emotional development and experiences.
Each of the participants were found to be developing typically, with no instances of neurological or psychiatric disorders. None of the children were taking medication, nor were they experiencing enough anxiety on a daily basis to meet criteria for clinical anxiety.
The results of the Checklist were used alongside the brain measurements to determine whether there were any connections between anxiety in daily life and alterations in the brain.
The researchers hope that the findings may eventually lead to the identification of children at high-risk of developing anxiety in order to provide education and early intervention for treatment.