Early Stress Linked to Later Anxiety

Photo: Desperated girl

Researchers used fcMRI to scan the brains
of 57 subjects;© panthermedia.net/Mitar Gavric

The study highlights evidence for a developmental pathway through which early life stress may drive these changes. Here, babies who lived in homes with stressed mothers were more likely to grow into preschoolers with higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. In addition, these girls with higher cortisol also showed less communication between brain areas associated with emotion regulation 14 years later. Last, both high cortisol and differences in brain activity predicted higher levels of adolescent anxiety at age 18.

"We wanted to understand how stress early in life impacts patterns of brain development which might lead to anxiety and depression," says first author Doctor Cory Burghy. "Young girls who, as preschoolers, had heightened cortisol levels, go on to show lower brain connectivity in important neural pathways for emotion regulation - and that predicts symptoms of anxiety during adolescence."

"Merging field research and home observation with the latest laboratory measures really makes this study novel," says Doctor Richard Davidson. "This will pave the way to better understanding of how the brain develops, and could give us insight into ways to intervene when children are young."

The current paper has its roots back in 1990 and 1991, when 570 children and their families enrolled in the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work (WSFW). All of the children were born in either Madison or Milwaukee. Doctor Marilyn Essex said the initial goal was to study the effects of maternity leave, day care and other factors on family stress. Over the years, the study has resulted in important findings on the social, psychological, and biological risk factors for child and adolescent mental health problems. Subjects are now 21 and 22 years old, and many continue to participate.

For the current study, Burghy and Birn used functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) to scan the brains of 57 subjects – 28 female and 29 male – to map the strength of connections between the amygdala, an area of the brain known for its sensitivity to negative emotion and threat, and the prefrontal cortex, often associated with helping to process and regulate negative emotion. Then, they looked back at earlier results and found that girls with weaker connections had, as infants, lived in homes where their mothers had reported higher general levels of stress – which could include symptoms of depression, parenting frustration, marital conflict, feeling overwhelmed in their role as a parent, and/or financial stress. As four-year-olds, these girls also showed higher levels of cortisol late in the day, measured in saliva, which is thought to demonstrate the stress the children experienced over the course of that day.

Near the time of the scan, researchers queried the teenagers about their anxiety symptoms, and about the stress in their current lives. They found a connection with childhood stress, rather than current stress levels. This suggested that higher cortisol levels in childhood could have modified the girl's developing brain, leaving weaker connections between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala – an association that explained about 65 percent of the variance in teenage anxiety levels.

"Our findings raise questions on how boys and girls differ in the life impact of early stress,'' says Davidson. "We do know that women report higher levels of mood and anxiety disorders, and these sex-based differences are very pronounced, especially in adolescence." Davidson says the study "raises important questions to help guide clinicians in preventive strategies that could benefit all children by teaching them to propagate well-being and resilience."

MEDICA.de; Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison