Brain Works More Vigorously For Anxious Girls

Connie K. Ho for

Nail biting. Knuckle cracking. These are just a few of the physical traits of nervousness. With these thoughts in mind, Michigan State University researchers recently discovered that the brains of anxious girls work more vigorously than those of boys. Scientists hope that the findings could be useful in identifying and treating anxiety disorders.

In the experiment, college students were asked to complete a task while their brain activity was measured with an electrode cap. Girls who described themselves as big worriers or were particularly anxious during the exam were the only ones found to have high brain activity when they made mistakes on the test. Lead investigator Jason Moser believes that the results could help public health professionals identify which girls are more likely to have anxiety disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

“This may help predict the development of anxiety issues later in life for girls,” explained Moser, an assistant professor of psychology, in a prepared statement. “It´s one more piece of the puzzle for us to figure out why women in general have more anxiety disorders.”

The study is published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology and is the first of its kind to track the link between worrying and mistake-related brain responses in sexes with a scientifically viable sample that was made up of 70 male and 79 female students. In the project, participants picked out the incorrect letter in a string of letters on a computer screen; sometimes the letters were the same (“FFFFF”) or sometimes the letters were switched around (“EEFEE”). After the test, students were asked to describe how much they worry.

While the girls who worried performed the same as the guys on general portions of the test, the brains of the female worriers were found to work harder. When the test became more complicated, the anxious girls performed worse and the anxiety affected their test results.

“Anxious girls´ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” Moser remarked in the statement. “As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school. We already know that anxious kids — and especially anxious girls — have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math.”

In continuing their research, Moser and his colleagues will look at whether estrogen, generally found more in women, can affect the increased brain response in tests. Estrogen influences the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is related to learning and processing. It is also found in the front part of the brain.

“This may end up reflecting hormone differences between men and women,” Moser commented in the statement.

To help those who may suffer from anxiety, there are a few tips that can be of use. One method to decrease worrying is to write down thoughts in a journal. Writing down thoughts rather than letting them float around can be a productive way to eliminate stress and increase focus. As well, people can look into brain games that are designed to help improve concentration and memory.

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