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Stressed female infants may become anxious teens

Exposure to stress in infancy can create changes in the brain that may predispose teenage girls to depression and anxiety…

Early childhood stress can cause brain changes, the study said. http://www.flickr.com/photos/tacitrequiem/
Exposure to stress in infancy can create changes in the brain that may predispose teenage girls to depression and anxiety, a US study has found.

Previous studies have linked infant stress, which is measured by testing saliva for the stress hormone cortisol, with emotional difficulties later in life.

However, the new study, titled Developmental pathways to amygdala-prefrontal function and internalizing symptoms in adolescence and published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, is the first to show how the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotion changes in teens.

“This is one of the first demonstrations that early stress seems to have an impact on the the way this regulatory circuitry is set up in late adolescence,” says Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was quoted as saying on the Nature news website.

The study involved comparing brain scans of 66 teenagers and mental health questionnaires they had completed with saliva cortisol samples taken when the same teens were around four-years-old.

The researchers also checked the results against data collected when the participants were young on their mothers reported levels of postnatal depression symptoms, marital conflict, parenting stress, financial stress and role overload.

“Our model indicates that early life stress increases basal cortisol, which in turn modulates emotion-­regulation circuitry in adolescence. The functional status of this circuitry at rest predicts both anxious and depressive symptoms and displays strong gender differences, with the effects being stronger in females,” the authors concluded.

“The fact that only females evinced these longitudinal associations between early life stress during infancy, childhood late afternoon basal cortisol and neural connectivity in adolescence extends previous work suggesting that females may be more sensitive to the effects of early life stress on neuroendocrine function,” the study said.

Professor Louise Newman, Director of Monash University’s Centre for Developmental Psychiatry, said the study “adds a very clear association about the impact of early adversity and trauma and the way that shapes the brain.”

“The other issue that needs to be thought about is what can we do in early childhood to promote resilience and to promote healthy brain development,” said Prof Newman, who was not involved in the study.

Girls were more likely to admit to symptoms of anxiety and depression than boys, she said, adding that early childhood stressors could range from poor parenting to outright abuse.

Controlled crying, a method of sleep training that involves leaving an infant to cry and is sometimes linked to increased cortisol in babies, was not necessarily a form of early childhood stress she said.

“We are certainly not saying that controlled crying per se damages people’s brains,” but may become detrimental if it is allowed to go on too long, used on a child too young, or by a parent who is not coping, she said.

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4 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    “The other issue that needs to be thought about is what can we do in early childhood to promote resilience and to promote healthy brain development,” said Prof Newman, who was not involved in the study.”

    Well I have a theory, in that girls tend to internalise, and boys tend to externalise.

    This system of girls internalising whatever emotions they may have is also encouraged in our present feminist society.

    The end result is a lot of women who live mostly inside their heads, and hardly experience much life at all.

    In fact, rarely will they venture outside of 4 walls, or step off concrete or carpet.

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I think that's close but no cigar.

      If females tend to internalise more it may be due to a lack of culturally prevalent female assertiveness. That is, females are probably encouraged early on to be more responsive and absorb the emotional states of other people. So if that involves stress, then the female absorbs stress as well.

      But as for emotional expression, males may be encouraged to internalise their own states and/or limit how that affect is expressed. They are taught to try not to absorb…

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  2. Chris Caley

    Research Professional & Taxpaying Voter

    "Exposure to stress in infancy can create changes in the brain that may predispose teenage girls to depression and anxiety, a US study has found."

    This actually lends support to the different ways boys and girls are sometimes treated - particularly when hurt - with girls often coddled more and boys assumed to be "just being boys".

    A stress-reduction approach may afford both sexes a lower chance of depression and anxiety, however we must be careful how we socialise this support, as too often girls are over-protected "who did this to you?" vs boys "what did you do?", which can subtley impart to the girl that the world is a scary place while the boy gets the impression he is in control of his environment...

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  3. Graham Martin

    logged in via Twitter

    Gosh, we are so clever to be able to pin this down.
    Of course generations of mothers have known this as a fact.
    Further, what we should be spending all our available resources on is helping new mothers without such knowledge to understand mindful parenting.

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