Prolonged Stress and Anxiety Can Alter Children’s Brains

anxietyThe brain structure associated with processing emotion grows larger in children who have experienced prolonged stress and anxiety.[1] Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine discovered that measuring the enlargement and connectivity of the amygdala can predict the degree of anxiety a child is experiencing in daily life.1

Anxiety is a common emotional reaction to stress, and it helps people cope with difficult situations.1 However, prolonged anxiety can lead to disabling conditions, such as phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.1

Past studies of adults with anxiety disorders have shown that they had enlarged amygdalae, and laboratory animals placed in environments that cause chronic stress have shown the amygdala to grow additional synapses and increase connectivity.1 The amygdala is a part of the brain that is located in the temporal lobe, with several sub-regions that are associated with different aspects of perceiving, learning, and regulating emotions.1 The basolateral amygdala, or sub-region that is involved with processing emotion-related sensory information and communicating it to the neocortex, is where researchers detected the enlargement.1

Past research has found that prolonged stress and anxiety during childhood is a risk factor for the development of anxiety disorders and depression later in life.1 However, this does not necessarily mean that a child with an enlarged and more connective amygdala will definitely develop a mood disorder, as the findings are not fully developed yet.1 More studies are needed. Instead, it is only a step in the direction of identifying young children who are at risk for clinical anxiety.1

Stanford researchers conducted a study of 76 children, between the ages of seven and nine.1 To begin, each child’s parents filled out the Childhood Behavior Checklist, which is a standard measure of a child’s general cognitive, social, and emotional wellbeing.1 All of the children were reported to have been developing normally, did not have a history of neurological or psychiatric disorder, and were not currently on any medicines.1 None of the children were currently experiencing a level of anxiety that could lead them to be considered clinically anxious.1

The researchers compared the results of the Checklist with the size and connectivity of each child’s amygdala to draw their conclusions.1 They identified four functional neocortical systems that were affected: one that deals with perception, one that deals with attention and vigilance, one that deals with reward and motivation, and one that detects emotional stimuli and regulates the responses.1 All four of these systems are impacted by childhood anxiety.1

The alterations to the structure and connectivity of the amygdala were significant in children with higher levels of anxiety, especially as the children were so young and their levels were too low to be considered clinical.1 Therefore, this study demonstrates that understanding the influence of childhood anxiety on the brain can aid in early identification and treatment for children at risk of anxiety disorders.1

[1] Nauert, R. (2013). Prolonged Stress, Anxiety Can Alter Part of Kids’ Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 22, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/11/21/prolonged-stress-anxiety-can-alter-part-of-kids-brain/62344.html

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