Childhood Stress Impairs Girls' Brain Development, Increases Anxiety

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Girls who have grown up with stressed mothers are more likely to be anxious preschoolers and later anxious teens, says a new study.

Researchers from University of Wisconsin-Madison found that early exposure to stress at home impairs normal brain development of girls at later stages of life. These girls had increased levels of stress hormone called cortisol during their early life.

"We wanted to understand how stress early in life impacts patterns of brain development which might lead to anxiety and depression. Young girls who, as preschoolers, had heightened cortisol levels, go on to show lower brain connectivity in important neural pathways for emotion regulation - and that predicts symptoms of anxiety during adolescence," said Dr. Cory Burghy of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and first author of the study.

The study looks at how day-to-day stress experienced by the mother while bringing up children, especially girls, can affect the girls' life.

Data for this study came from Wisconsin Study of Families and Work that began in the early 1990s. Initially the study was conducted to analyze the effects of maternity leave, day care and other factors on family stress. However, the data available from the study helped researchers find a relation between children growing up in stressed families and their anxiety levels.

In the present study, researchers analyzed brain scans of 57 subjects - 28 female and 29 male.

Women, more than men, who grew up in families with high levels of stress had weaker connections in certain regions of brain. Specifically, these women had weak connections between amygdala, a region of the brain known for its sensitivity to negative emotion, and the prefrontal cortex, associated with regulation of negative emotions.

The women were also asked about their current levels of stress. Researchers found that it was the childhood stress, rather than the levels of stress that they're facing now, that had made the structural changes in the brain.

"Our findings raise questions on how boys and girls differ in the life impact of early stress. We do know that women report higher levels of mood and anxiety disorders, and these sex-based differences are very pronounced, especially in adolescence," said Davidson.

"Now that we are showing that early life stress and cortisol affect brain development. It raises important questions about what we can do to better support young parents and families," added Davidson.

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