Anxiety – depression linked to increased brain activity in childhood

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A new study from the US has pinpointed areas of the brain that could possibly predict whether or not a child is likely to develop anxiety and depression during adolescence.

“Children with anxious temperaments suffer from extreme shyness, persistent worry and increased bodily responses to stress” says Ned H. Kalin, chair of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, who led the research.

“It has long been known that these children are at increased risk of developing anxiety, depression, and associated substance abuse disorders.”

The researchers looked at the brains of 238 young rhesus monkeys using Positron emission tomography (PET) scans and found that increased activity in the Amygdala part of the brain and in the hippocampus could predict anxiety later on.

It has already been found in previous research that young monkeys behave very similar to young children when they are anxious.

“We believe that young children who have higher activity in these brain regions are more likely to develop anxiety and depression as adolescents and adults and are also more likely to develop drug and alcohol problems in an attempt to treat their distress” says Kalin.

The researchers also looked at the genetic profiles of the monkeys and found that increased activity in the hippocampus area was inherited whereas increased activity in the Amygdala was not.

“We expected that all of the brain regions involved in anxious temperament would be similarly affected by genes and environment, but found that activity in the anterior hippocampus was more heritable than in the amygdala,” said the researchers.

“Even though these structures are closely linked, the results suggest differential influences of genes and environment on how these brain regions mediate AT and the ongoing risk of developing anxiety and depression.”

The findings, which have been published in the Aug. 12 edition of the journal Nature, could lead to new ways of identifying and treating children who are at risk.

“My feeling is that the earlier we intervene with children, the more likely they will be able to lead a happy life in which they aren’t as controlled by anxiety and depression. We think we can train vulnerable kids to settle their brains down,” Kalin said.

The researchers are now measuring brain activity in young children who are already showing signs of anxiety and depression to confirm their findings.

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