Young Teens' Poor Attention Tied to Anxiety Disorders

New research suggests low attention control in early adolescence is related to a genetic risk factor for four different anxiety disorders.

University of Texas, Arlington (UTA) investigators found that young teens who suffer from anxiety are also more vulnerable to additional problems like depression, drug dependence, suicidal behavior, and educational underachievement.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, eight percent of teens ages 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder, with anxiety-related problems often peaking during this time.

Most adults diagnosed with anxiety or mood disorders also report the presence of symptoms earlier in their lives.

“Appropriate and earlier intervention could really assist these patients and improve their outlooks on the long-term,” said Dr. Jeffrey Gagne, UTA assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study.

“Having a visible marker like low attention control, which usually appears and can be identified before anxiety, could improve the treatment of these disorders.”

Gagne and UTA graduate student Catherine Spann recently published their research in the Journal of Research on Adolescence. It is the first twin study-based examination of genetic and environmental factors that contribute to both low attention control and four distinct anxiety symptoms in early adolescence.

In the research, investigators used a combination of self-ratings and mother ratings to assess scores for obsessive, social, separation, and generalized anxiety symptoms in 446 twin pairs with a mean age of 13.6 years. All participants were enrolled in the Wisconsin Twin Project.

Researchers then explored the extent to which links between low levels of attention and anxiety symptoms are genetically and environmentally influenced in adolescence.

They discovered non-shared environmental factors were a major influence for attention control and all anxiety variables. Genetic correlations ranged from 36 to 47 percent, a pattern that suggests that low attention can be considered a phenotypic and genetic risk factor for anxiety.

Risk level varied, however, depending on the specific type of disorder, with the highest correlations being for generalized and separation anxieties, and the lowest for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Dr. Perry Fuchs, chair of UTA’s department of Psychology in the College of Science, emphasized the importance of this work in the context of the university’s increasing focus on health and the human condition.

“Adolescence is clearly an important development period,” Fuchs said. “Better assessment of teens’ ability to concentrate could facilitate the identification of those at risk of anxiety and could also inform molecular genetic studies, which would be the logical next stage for research.”

Source: University of Texas, Arlington