It may be possible to scan a child's brain for anxiety disorders, new research suggests. According to a study published in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry, researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine found that the amygdala, also known as the "fear center," was discovered to be significantly larger in the brains of children with high levels of anxiety. Their findings point to a compelling relationship between structures of the brain and anxiety in children.

The Study

Focusing on children between the ages of seven and nine years old, a period when anxiety-related symptoms can first be detected, researchers worked with both the children and their parents to measure levels of anxiety in each child. While parents were asked to fill out questionnaires about their child's behaviors, children were subjected to non-invasive MRI scans of their brain structures and functions.

Out of the 76 children recruited, researchers found that those with high levels of anxiety exhibited heightened connections between parts of the brain responsible for attention, emotion, and perception. The part of the brain shown to be the most affected by childhood anxiety? The amygdala—specifically a subpart of the amygdala involved with fear learning and processing emotions—displayed larger volumes in children with higher levels of anxiety.

Learning More About the Brain and Anxiety in Children

"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 Dr. Shaozheng Qin, postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford School of Medicine and first author on this study.

While the study failed to determine whether alterations in the brain were the cause or the consequence of anxiety, Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, noted that these discoveries are a huge step towards a larger understanding of this issue. "It is critical that we move from these interesting cross-sectional observations to longitudinal studies," said Krystal on the importance of more in-depth analysis.

Regarding the impact of this study on further anxiety research, Qin is also hopeful: "Understanding the influence of childhood anxiety on specific amygdala circuits, as identified in our study, will provide important new insights into the neurodevelopmental origins of anxiety in humans."

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Shaozheng Qin, Christina B. Young, Xujun Duan, Tianwen Chen, Kaustubh Supekar, Vinod Menon. Amygdala Subregional Structure and Intrinsic Functional Connectivity Predicts Individual Differences in Anxiety During Early Childhood. Biological Psychiatry, 2014; 75 (11): 892 DOI:10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.10.006

Date of original publication:

Updated: November 10, 2015