Dealing with and understanding the behavior of kids can be daunting for parents and educators. While sometimes these issues are simple and relatively easy to deal with, other times they’re more severe, and determining their source is difficult. In a new study from the University of Birmingham, researchers examined youths with behavioral problems, like antisocial behavior and aggressiveness, and found they may have reduced gray matter volume in several areas of their brain.

Published in JAMA Psychiatry, the study showed that compared to typically developing children, those with behavioral problems showed gray matter reductions within the insula, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. Gray matter serves to process information in the brain, and the structures identified in the study are important for matters of decision-making, empathic responses, emotional regulation, and reading facial expressions — important processes shown to be deficient in youths with behavioral problems.

The study involved brain imaging data from 13 previous studies involving 394 youths with behavioral problems and 350 typically developing youths as controls. This makes it the largest study on the topic, and the findings have the potential to help determine how behavioral issues come about in youth and how they in turn relate to behavioral problems in adults.

“We know that severe behavioral problems in youths are not only predictive of antisocial and aggressive behavior in adulthood, but also substance misuse, mental health problems, and poor physical health,” explained Dr. Stephane De Brito, lead author of the paper, in a press release. “For that reason, behavioral problems are an essential target for prevention efforts and our study advances understanding of the brain regions associated with aggressive antisocial behavior in youths.”

Still, the field has held on to its share of unanswered questions. A big uncertainty is how environmental factors — like smoking or substance abuse during pregnancy, or childhood abuse — may be associated with these structural differences in the brain.

Dr. Jack Rogers, research fellow at the University of Birmingham, also said that prospective longitudinal studies would be needed to assess whether structural differences are only present early in life, or if they persist into adolescence and adulthood. “In future research, it will also be important to examine if these brain differences, and the affective and cognitive processes they are involved in, can be influenced by therapeutic interventions to promote a good outcome in adult life,” he said.

De Brito said that the team is involved in a large multisite study, which it hopes will help shed light on some of the environmental and neurobiological factors involved in the development of childhood behavioral problems.

Source: Rogers J, De Brito S. Cortical and Subcortical Gray matter Volume in Youths with Conduct Problems. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015.