Anxiety Depends on Context with Teenagers

Anxiety disorders in youth are linked to specific area of the brain, new research from UCLA reveals. Anxiety disorders are widespread in children and adolescents.

They affect up to 25 percent of the youth population, causing distress and functional impairment. If left untreated, anxiety disorders can cause bad grades, problems at home and increased rates of psychiatric disorders in adulthood.

Previous research found that anxious youths tend to interpret neutral or ambiguous information as threatening, fueling the feelings of distress that characterize anxiety disorders.

Where is Anxiety in the Brain?

But what happens in the brain and how the brain may be impacted has been unclear. Specifically, where in the brain neutral information is transformed into “threatening” information in anxious youth has remained mysterious.

Researchers at UCLA have now shown that teenagers with anxiety disorders exhibit amplified activity in a specific part of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex, when they are interpreting a situation negatively.

In the study, 16 teenagers with anxiety disorders and 15 non-anxious teens were given functional MRI scans while being shown pictures of people with a neutral look on their face.

The faces were paired with either of two sentences: one that was viewed as neutral (“She is watching a presentation”) and one that might be viewed as more intimidating (“She is about to give a presentation”).

Social and Emotional Context

The teens without anxiety disorders were unaffected by the context when they interpreted the faces.

Those with anxiety disorders often found neutral faces more threatening when they were presented in an “anxiety-provoking” situation ; one in which they might feel judged by peers. This was not a great surprise.

Except when researchers measured brain activity in these situations, they found increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.

“We know that the medial prefrontal cortex plays a role in social and emotional processes, and it is an area of the brain that is still developing through childhood and adolescence, so it was a natural candidate for examination,” said co-author Tara Peris, assistant psychiatry professor at UCLA. “The role this area of the brain plays is of particular interest, then, given prior research that implicates it in inferring what another person is feeling.”

This is among the first studies, according to Peris, aimed at understanding how anxious youths make sense of neutral stimuli and the conditions under which their brains might elicit heightened patterns of activation.

More research is needed to examine more definitively the role of this part of the brain in adolescent anxiety and the extent to which it may serve as a biomarker for illness.

Original Study:

Contextual modulation of medial prefrontal cortex to neutral faces in anxious adolescents
Tara S Peris, Adriana Galván
Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders 2013, 3:18 (15 November 2013)