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Anxious children found to have bigger “fear centers” in the brain

June 16, 2014
Courtesy of Elsevier journals
and World Science staff

Chil­dren with high anx­i­e­ty tend to have a larg­er “fear cen­ter” in the brain, with more con­nec­tions to oth­er parts of the brain, ac­cord­ing to a stu­dy.

The re­port, in the cur­rent is­sue of the jour­nal Bi­o­log­i­cal Psy­chi­a­try, says anx­i­e­ty prob­lems may stem in part from changes in its de­vel­op­ment of that cen­ter, called the amyg­da­la.

Re­search­ers at the Stan­ford Uni­vers­ity School of Med­i­cine re­cruited 76 chil­dren, sev­en to nine years of age. The par­ents com­plet­ed as­sess­ments de­signed to meas­ure the anx­i­e­ty lev­els of the chil­dren, and the chil­dren then un­der­went scans of brain struc­ture and func­tion, through mag­net­ic res­o­nance or MRI im­ag­ing.

The re­search­ers found that the more anx­ious chil­dren had, be­sides a larg­er “fear cen­ter,” in­creased con­nec­ti­vity be­tween the amyg­da­la and oth­er brain re­gions re­spon­si­ble for at­ten­tion, emo­tion per­cep­tion, and regula­t­ion. They al­so de­vel­oped an equa­t­ion that they said re­liably pre­dicted the anx­i­e­ty lev­el from the MRI meas­urements.

The most af­fect­ed re­gion was the ba­so­lat­eral por­tion of the amyg­da­la, they said, im­pli­cat­ed in fear learn­ing and the pro­cess­ing of emo­tion-related in­forma­t­ion.

“It is a bit sur­pris­ing that al­tera­t­ions to the struc­ture and con­nec­ti­vity of the amyg­da­la were so sig­nif­i­cant in 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 ob­served clin­ic­ally,” said Shaozheng Qin, one of the au­thors. 

John Krys­tal, ed­i­tor of the jour­nal, added that fu­ture stud­ies need to fo­cus on wheth­er the brain struc­ture is a risk fac­tor, or it­self a con­se­quence, of “in­creased child­hood anx­i­e­ty.” This line of re­search “will pro­vide im­por­tant new in­sights in­to the neurode­vel­op­mental ori­gins of anx­i­e­ty in hu­mans,” Qin said.


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Children with high anxiety tend to have a larger “fear center” in the brain, with more connections to other parts of the brain, according to a study. The report, in the current issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry, said anxiety problems may stem partially from changes in its development of that center, called the amygdala. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine recruited 76 children, seven to nine years of age. The parents completed assessments designed to measure the anxiety levels of the children, and the children then underwent scans of brain structure and function, through magnetic resonance imaging. The researchers found that the more anxious children had, besides a larger “fear center,” increased connectivity between the amygdala and other brain regions responsible for attention, emotion perception, and regulation. They also developed an equation that they said reliably predicted the anxiety level from the MRI measurements. The most affected region was the basolateral portion of the amygdala, they said, implicated in fear learning and the processing of emotion-related information. “It is a bit surprising that alterations to the structure and connectivity of the amygdala were so significant in 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 observed clinically,” said Shaozheng Qin, one of the authors. John Krystal, editor of the journal, added that future studies need to focus on whether the brain structure is a risk factor, or itself a consequence, of “increased childhood anxiety.” This line of research “will provide important new insights into the neurodevelopmental origins of anxiety in humans,” Qin said.