Heightened stress in infancy may predispose girls to suffer anxiety in adolescence, new research suggests.
The findings, from a long-running study by University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists, indicates high family stress at an early age may change brain functions as young girls develop that can produce long-lasting mental-health problems later in life.
Researchers, who published their results in the journal Nature Neuroscience, tracked 57 boys and girls and found babies who lived in homes with stressed mothers were more likely to have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, as preschoolers. In addition, girls with higher cortisol also showed less communication between brain areas associated with emotion in their teen years and were far more likely to suffer adolescent anxiety at age 18.
Interestingly, the researchers found no similar pattern in young and adolescent males.
"We wanted to understand how stress early in life impacts patterns of brain development which might lead to anxiety and depression," said Dr. Cory Burghy, of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. "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."
Dr. Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry, said the findings offer a better understanding of how the brain develops and may point the way to identifying children at risk of developing anxiety as teens and helping them early.
"Our findings raise questions on how boys and girls differ in the life impact of early stress,'' added 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."
This study was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Mental Health and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Psychopathology and Development.