HEALTHY LIVING

Childhood Anxiety Could Physically Change The Brain

02/04/2015 08:19 am ET | Updated Feb 04, 2015
Isabel Pavia via Getty Images

Mental health issues may seem like adult-only problems, but they can also have a profound impact on younger minds. In fact, anxiety in preschoolers may lead to physiological changes in the brain, a recent study suggests.

Researchers from Yale, Duke and Vanderbilt universities examined children's brains over the course of five years and found long-lasting neurobiological effects in those with an anxiety disorder (which includes generalized anxiety, social phobia and separation anxiety). The study showed there was weaker connectivity in the brains of these children between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, two regions that interact to play an important role in regulating anxiety, the Yale Daily News reported.

Children ages 2 to 5 were tested using a psychiatric assessment developed by the researchers, which examined the kids' behavior and emotions through parental interviews. After the participants reached an age range of 5 to 9, the researchers administered fMRI scans to look at their brains, discovering that changes varied depending on the type of anxiety disorder.

The study reaffirms the notion that having a mental illness is not simply "all in a sufferer's head" or a "phase" -- even when it comes to children. The recent findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that these types of disorders are rooted in biology and may even lead to physically different brains.

Experts stress that mental illness should be held with the same gravity as other health conditions. Yet despite the mounting research, there still seems to be an uphill battle when it comes to empathy and treating the illnesses like a physical problem.

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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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