Mental Health

Childhood Stress Can Cause Faster Brain Maturity During Adolescence

Experiencing stress during childhood may speed up maturation in certain parts of the brain during adolescence, according to a long-term study conducted by researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. 

The findings of the research were published in the journal Scientific Reports on June 15.

As part of the study, 129 one-year-old participants were recruited in the year 1998 to be studied over the next two decades. The research team examined their play sessions and how they interacted with parents, friends, and classmates. They also provided Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Two types of stressors — negative life events and negative influences from the social environment — were examined for their impact on early childhood and adolescence. The two age groups were defined as 0-5 years and 14-17 years respectively.

During childhood, negative events like parents' divorce and illnesses were linked to faster maturation of the prefrontal cortex and amygdala during adolescence. On the other hand, negative influences from the social environment during adolescence (such as low peer esteem at school) were connected to a slower maturation of the hippocampus and another part of the prefrontal cortex.

These parts of the brain play a major role in how people function during social and emotional situations. Furthermore, these regions were said to be sensitive to stress.

"Unfortunately, in this study, we can't say with certainty that stress causes these effects. However, based on animal studies we can hypothesize that these mechanisms are indeed causal," said co-author Anna Tyborowska, a Ph.D. student at Radboud.

Researchers at Brown University conducted an experiment in 2016 which found accelerated maturation in the brains of male mice as a response to early life stress. Professor Kevin Bath, who led the study, suggested the stress may be providing a signal about the hospitability of the environment.

"From an evolutionary perspective, it is useful to mature faster if you grow up in a stressful environment," said Tyborowska. "However, it also prevents the brain from adjusting to the current environment in a flexible way. In other words, the brain becomes 'mature' too soon."

The latest study appeared to be consistent with theories of evolutionary biology, according to the research team which included Karin Roelofs, a professor of experimental psychopathology at Radboud. They were surprised to find social stress later in life seemed to slow down maturation during adolescence.

"What makes this interesting is that a stronger effect of stress on the brain also increases the risk of developing antisocial personality traits," Tyborowska added.

She also revealed the team was preparing to conduct the next stage of research now that all the participants are in their twenties.

"Now that we know that stress affects the maturation of brain regions that also play a role in the control of emotions, we can investigate how this development continues later in life."