PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – New research is showing the brains of anxious kids might actually be different than those of other kids.
One-in-five kids has some form of anxiety, enough of it to cause concern. It’s long been believed that their environment is mostly to blame, but new research is showing otherwise.
“Some kinds of anxiety can be prompted by things that happen in the environment. If it were completely genetic and a predetermined fact, we couldn’t really be very successful at curing children’s anxiety responses, and we know that’s not the case,” Dr. Judith Cohen, of Allegheny General Hospital Psychiatry, said.
There may be internal factors, too.
In a Stanford study of 76 children, ages 7 to 9, researchers did a survey of parents about their kids’ anxiety levels. They also did special MRI scans of the children’s brains to look at structure and function. The amygdala, or fear center, was of particular interest to researchers.
The amygdala is a group of cells deep in the middle of the brain. There is one on each side. These areas are important to memory, decision making and emotional reaction.
The researchers found the bigger the amygdala, the higher the anxiety, and they were able to predict anxiety levels based on size.
Similar to the classic question of which came first, the chicken or the egg – the study begs the same question: which came first, the anxiety or the big fear center?
In other words, does the size of someone’s fear center bring on the panic and dread? Or does the worry cause the greater size?
“How is that amygdala connected to other parts of the brain that have to do with anxiety or development of anxiety?” says Dr. Cohen.
While the study can’t show cause and effect, it is an important advance in identifying children at risk and adds to the understanding of how anxiety develops.
In the meantime, many doctors agree – while parents can’t do anything about their kids’ internal factors, they can address some of the external ones, including themselves.
“So in some ways, we can be successful at changing environmental factors,” Dr. Cohen said.” Such as parents’ support, the way we help parents and other environmental factors respond, and that’s really encouraging.”