redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Measuring the size and connectivity of a region of the brain responsible for processing emotions can help predict the amount of stress that young children are experiencing in their day-to-day lives, according to new research published today in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
In the study, researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine report that kids who have a larger amygdala that is better connected with other parts of the brain also involved in emotional regulation tend to experience higher levels of anxiety.
Since prolonged stress during childhood is said to be a risk factor in developing depression or anxiety disorders during adulthood, the discovery could help doctors find and identify at-risk youngsters. However, the authors note that an enlarged, highly-connected amygdala does not necessarily indicate that a child will develop a mood disorder.
“We are not at a point where we can use these findings to predict the likelihood of a child developing mood and anxiety disorders as an adult, but it is an important step in the identification of young children at risk for clinical anxiety,” stated senior author Dr. Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the California-based university.
Dr. Menon and his colleagues looked at 76 children between the ages of seven and nine. While the changes to the amygdala may have actually occurred earlier in childhood, the researchers explain that cognitive emotional assessments in children younger than seven are deemed unreliable.
In addition, the parents of those subjects completed the Childhood Behavior Checklist, described by the university as a standard measure of a child’s general cognitive, social and emotional well-being. Each child was determined to be developing normally, with no previous history of psychiatric or neurological disorders.
Furthermore, none of them were using medication, and none were considered to be clinically anxious, meaning that they did not experience extremely elevated stress levels prior to the study. The results of the assessment were compared to data pertaining to the size and connectivity of each child’s brain before conclusions were drawn.
“The amygdala is an evolutionarily primitive part of the brain located deep in the temporal lobe. It comprises several subregions associated with different aspects of perceiving, learning and regulating emotions,” the Stanford researchers explained, adding that the enlargement was detected in “the basolateral amygdala, a subregion important for processing emotion-related sensory information and communicating it to the neocortex.”
Shaozheng Qin, a postdoctoral scholar and the lead author of the study, detected the enlargement using MRI scans to measure the size of various subregions of the amygdala, then using functional MRI to measure the connectivity of those regions to other areas of the brain. Qin observed that the basolateral amygdala had “stronger functional connections with multiple areas of the neocortex in children with higher anxiety levels.”
Menon noted that the researchers were shocked that the changes to the amygdala’s structure and connectivity were so significant in children whose anxiety levels were too low to be considered clinical. He and his colleagues believe that their work could shed new light into the developmental origins of anxiety, and that understanding how childhood stress impacts this region of the brain could lead to earlier detection and treatment of at-risk youngsters.