Stress in infancy leads to stress as a teen, especially for girls


A new study shows that high levels of family stress in infancy are linked to differences in everyday brain function and anxiety in teen girls. This is according to results of a long-running population study by University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists.

Early life stress leads to adolescent anxiety

The study points to evidence for a developmental pathway in which early life stress creates neural pathway changes in the brain. The study revealed that babies who lived in homes with stressed mothers were more likely to grow into preschoolers with higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Also, the girls with higher cortisol demonstrated less communication between brain areas associated with emotion regulation – 14 years later. The two observations came together as predictors for higher levels of adolescent anxiety at age 18.

Young girls have higher cortisol levels

“We wanted to understand how stress early in life impacts patterns of brain development which might lead to anxiety and depression,” said first author 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.”

Not so for boys

Remarkably, young men do not show any of these patterns. “Our findings raise questions on how boys and girls differ in the life impact of early stress,” said Dr. Richard Davidson, professor psychology and psychiatry and director of the lab where Burghy is a post-doctoral researcher. “We do know that women report higher levels of mood and anxiety disorders, and these sex-based differences are very pronounced, especially in adolescence.”

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison, MedicalNewsToday


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