The brains of anxious girls work much harder than those of boys, according to researchers at Michigan State University.
The researchers conducted an experiment in which college students performed a simple task while their brain activity was measured by an electrode cap. They found that girls who identified themselves as particularly anxious or big worriers recorded high brain activity when they made mistakes during the task.
Jason Moser, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology and lead investigator on the project, said the findings could help mental health professionals determine which girls may be prone to obsessive-compulsive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.
“This may help predict the development of anxiety issues later in life for girls,” he said. “It’s one more piece of the puzzle for us to figure out why women in general have more anxiety disorders.”
Reported in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, the study is among the first to measure the correlation between worrying and error-related responses in the sexes using a scientifically viable sample (79 female students, 70 males), according to the researchers.
Participants were asked to identify the middle letter in a series of five-letter groups on a computer screen. Sometimes the middle letter was the same as the other four (FFFFF) while sometimes it was different (EEFEE). Afterward each participant filled out a questionnaire about how much they worry.
Although the girls who said they worried the most performed about the same as the boys on simple portions of the task, their brains had to work harder at it, the researchers said. As the test became more difficult, the anxious females performed worse, suggesting worrying got in the way of completing the task, Moser said.
“Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” he said. “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.”
Moser and other researchers at the university are investigating whether estrogen may be responsible for the increased brain response. Estrogen is known to affect the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in learning and processing mistakes in the front part of the brain. “This may end up reflecting hormone differences between men and women,” he said.
In addition to traditional therapies for anxiety, Moser suggested a few other ways to reduce worry, such as journaling — “writing your worries down in a journal rather than letting them stick in your head” — and doing “brain games” designed to improve memory and concentration.
Source: Michigan State University