Health Brief: Study shows stressed infant girls could become depressed and anxious teenagers


In females, stress as an infant could lead to anxiety and depression later in life, according to a study published in the journal, Nature Neuroscience.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison followed 57 young adults who were born around 1990, and their mothers. The study originally focused on the stress levels of the mothers, but over time, evolved into research on the biological effects on the children and how they internalized the stress.

Researchers first measured the stress levels of the mothers and the children. Children with high cortisol levels (indicates high stress) at 4½ were again tested at age 18 using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Researchers saw in the MRI scans that in the female subjects, in particular, there were lower levels of connectivity between the amygdala (associated with the perception of stress) and the prefrontal cortex (helps to regulate emotion). Interviews with the girls also indicated that these same subjects had higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Of the male subjects with high cortisol levels, their brain scans as adolescents did not show the same changes as in the girls’ scans.

The researchers aren’t clear if the difference between the male and female subjects has to do with hormones, or if the brains of the teenage boys with high cortisol had been changed in some other way that wasn’t uncovered in this study. The study’s authors hope future research in this area will turn up ways in which these changes can be prevented.

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