Published on November 12th, 2012 | by No Artificial
Early Stress Linked to Anxiety in Teen Girls
Michigan State University scientists claim that high levels of family stress in infancy are linked to differences in everyday brain function and anxiety in teenage girls.
The study features evidence for a developmental pathway through which early life stress may drive emotional and behavioral changes.
Babies who lived in families with stressed mothers were more likely to become preschoolers with much higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Furthermore, 14 years later, these teenage girls with higher cortisol also showed less communication between brain areas associated with emotion regulation.
Both high cortisol and differences in brain activity predicted higher levels of stress and anxiety at age 18.
The males in the research did not show any of these patterns.
“We wanted to understand how stress early in life impacts patterns of brain development which might lead to anxiety and depression,” reported Dr. Cory Burghy of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior.
“Young girls who, as preschoolers, had heightened cortisol levels, go on to show lower brain connectivity in important neural pathways for emotion regulation — and that predicts symptoms of anxiety during adolescence,” added Burghy.
The researchers scanned the brains of 57 participants (28 females and 29 males) to map the strength of connections between the amygdale — a brain region known for its sensitivity to negative emotion and threat — and the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with helping to process and regulate negative emotion.
Then they looked back at past results and observed that girls with weaker connections had, as infants, lived with mothers who had reported higher overall amounts of stress. This includes depression, parenting frustration, exhaustion and aggravation, marital conflict, or financial stress.
As four-year-olds, these girls also showed higher levels of cortisol late in the day, which is considered a measure of stress experienced during the day.
At the end of the study, researchers queried the teenagers about their anxiety signs and symptoms, and about the stress in their present lives. They found a strong connection with childhood stress, rather than current stress levels. This suggested that higher cortisol levels in childhood could have modified the girl’s developing brain, causing weaker connections between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala.
“Our findings raise questions on how boys and girls differ in the life impact of early stress,” said Richard Davidson, Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“We do know that women report higher levels of mood and anxiety disorders, and these sex-based differences are very pronounced, especially in adolescence”, Davidson added.
University of Wisconsin-Madison