Every little kid has anxieties, whether it’s the monsters under the bed or the big fierce dog around the corner. Most of us consider such childhood fears a normal part of growing up and assume they have no lasting effects, since they usually fade as kids get older.
But now Stanford researchers have determined that young children who experience levels of anxiety that are relatively high – but still within the range of normal – show differences in a region of the brain associated with perception and regulation of emotion when compared to other kids.
The region – called the amygdala – was significantly larger and more strongly connected to certain other parts of the brain in the anxious children.
I talked recently with Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and senior author of the study, which was published online today in Biological Psychiatry.
Menon explained to me that children who experience prolonged stress and anxiety during childhood are at increased risk of developing anxiety disorders and depression later in life. He also said that adults with such disorders have amygdalas that are larger and more strongly connected than average.
But it’s a bit of a chicken or egg situation at this point, he said, since it’s unclear whether the anxiety alters the amygdala, or if an altered amygdala causes the anxiety.
What surprised Menon and the lead author of the study, postdoctoral researcher Shaozheng Qin, PhD, was that the alterations to the structure and connectivity of the amygdala were so pronounced in children who were relatively young – ages 7 to 9 – and whose anxiety didn’t rise to the level of being considered clinical.
They emphasized that children with enlarged amygdalas aren’t necessarily condemned to mood disorders later in life. But they hope that as more insights are gained into the influence of childhood anxiety on the amygdala, it will aid in the early identification and treatment of children at risk for anxiety disorders.
You can read more details about the study in our press release.