In Anxious Kids: Fear Center or Amygdala in Brain Larger

amygdalaNew research suggests that altered childhood development of the small brain structure called the amygdala, or “fear center, ” may influence adult anxiety problems.[1]

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine recruited 76 children who were all between the ages of seven and nine—the period when anxiety-related traits and symptoms can first be identified reliably.1 The children’s parents completed assessments that were designed to measure the anxiety levels of the children, and the children underwent non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brain structure and function.1

Researchers found that children with high levels of anxiety had an enlarged amygdala volume and increased connectivity with other brain regions responsible for attention, emotion perception, and regulation.1 The researchers also developed an equation that reliably predicted the children’s anxiety level from the MRI measurements of amygdala volume and functional connectivity.1

“It is a bit surprising that alterations to the structure and connectivity of the amygdala were so significant in children with higher levels of anxiety, given both the young age of the children and the fact that their anxiety levels were too low to be observed clinically,” said Dr. Shaozheng Qin, first author of the study.1

Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented, “It is critical that we move from these interesting cross-sectional observations to longitudinal studies, so that we can separate the extent to which larger and better connected amygdalae are risk factors or consequences of increased childhood anxiety.”1

“However, our study represents an important step in characterizing altered brain systems and developing predictive biomarkers in the identification for young children at risk for anxiety disorders,” Qin added. “Understanding the influence of childhood anxiety on specific amygdala circuits, as identified in our study, will provide important new insights into the neurodevelopmental origins of anxiety in humans.”1

[1] Nauert, R. (2014). Fear Center in Brain Larger Among Anxious Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/06/17/fear-center-in-brain-larger-among-anxious-kids/71325.html

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