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Prolonged Stress, Anxiety Can Alter Part of Kids’ Brain

Prolonged Stress, Anxiety Can Alter Part of Kids' BrainA new study finds the brain structure associated with processing emotion grows larger among children who have experienced extended stress and anxiety.

Stanford University School of Medicine researchers discovered that measuring the enlargement and connectivity of the amygdala can help to predict the degree of anxiety a young child is experiencing in daily life.

Prior research has found that prolonged stress and anxiety during childhood is a risk factor for developing anxiety disorders and depression later in life. But the findings do not mean that a young child with an enlarged and highly connected amygdala will necessarily go on to develop a mood disorder, said Vinod Menon, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and senior author of the study.

The study is published online in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

“We are not at a point where we can use these findings to predict the likelihood of a child developing mood and anxiety disorders as an adult, but it is an important step in the identification of young children at risk for clinical anxiety,” Menon said.

Participants in the study were 76 children ages 7 to 9. “For the cognitive emotional assessments to be reliable, 7 years old is about as young as a child can be,” said Menon, who is a member of the Child Health Research Institute at Stanford.

“But the changes to the amygdala may have started earlier.”

The parents of the children in the study filled out the Childhood Behavior Checklist, a standard measure of a child’s general cognitive, social and emotional well-being.

All the children in the study were typically developing, with no history of neurological or psychiatric disorders, and were not using medication. None of the children in the study were experiencing so much anxiety in their daily lives that they could be considered clinically anxious.

The researchers compared the results of the assessment with the size and connectivity data of each child’s brain to draw their conclusions.

Anxiety is a common emotional reaction to stress. It normally helps us cope with difficult situations. But sustained anxiety can lead to disabling conditions such as phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

Studies of adults suffering from anxiety disorders have shown that they possess enlarged, highly connected amygdalae. Studies of laboratory animals placed in an environment causing chronic stress have determined that the animals’ amygdalae grew additional synapses and that synaptic connectivity increased in response to the resulting persistent anxiety.

The amygdala is an evolutionarily primitive part of the brain located deep in the temporal lobe. It comprises several subregions associated with different aspects of perceiving, learning and regulating emotions.

The basolateral amygdala, a subregion important for processing emotion-related sensory information and communicating it to the neocortex — the evolutionarily newer part of the brain — is specifically where Shaozheng Qin, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar and lead author of the study, detected the enlargement.

Qin used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the size of the various subregions of the amygdala and functional MRI to measure the connectivity of those regions to other areas of the brain.

“The basolateral amygdala had stronger functional connections with multiple areas of the neocortex in children with higher anxiety levels,” Qin said.

The researchers identified four functional neocortical systems that were affected. One of the systems deals with perception, another with attention and vigilance, a third with reward and motivation, and the fourth with detection of salient emotional stimuli and regulation of emotional responses.

“All four of these core systems are impacted by childhood anxiety,” Qin said.

Menon said they were surprised that alterations to the structure and connectivity of the amygdala were so significant in the 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 considered clinical.

The study provides important new insights into the developmental origins of anxiety, he added. Understanding the influence of childhood anxiety on specific amygdala circuits, as identified in the study, could aid in the early identification and treatment of children at risk for anxiety disorders.

Source: Stanford University Medical Center


Abstract of Brain photo by shutterstock.

Prolonged Stress, Anxiety Can Alter Part of Kids’ Brain

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Prolonged Stress, Anxiety Can Alter Part of Kids’ Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 21 Nov 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.