How early fears play a role in later anxiety, depression

Credit: Caleb Woods/ Unsplash.

Depression is more than just feeling down or having a bad day. When a sad mood lasts for a long time and interferes with normal, everyday functioning, you may be depressed.

Anxiety disorders often go hand in hand with depression. People who have anxiety disorders struggle with intense and uncontrollable feelings of anxiety, fear, worry, and panic.

In a study from The University of Texas at Dallas, scientists found early risk factors linked to children’s temperament and a neural process that could foretell whether a person might develop depression and anxiety in adolescence and early adulthood.

The team tracked a cohort of 165 individuals from 4 months old, between 1989 and 1993, through age 26.

They found that people who are more inhibited in early childhood and who also don’t respond typically to potential rewards as adolescents are vulnerable to developing depression later in life, more so than anxiety.

The findings highlight different mechanisms in the brain and relate them to who is at greater risk for developing different mental health issues.

When babies are exposed to novel objects, people or situations, some react positively and approach them without fear, whereas others respond with wariness or avoidance.

This differentiation defines uninhibited versus inhibited behavior.

The current research is unique for its characterization of the subjects’ early temperamental risks and the protracted length of time they were studied.

As young children, the participants were categorized as either inhibited or uninhibited.

As adolescents, they underwent functional MRIs while completing a task to measure their brains’ reaction in anticipating rewards—in this case, trying to win money.

The team looked at the ventral striatum, a brain region well studied in terms of understanding depression in adults.

Some study participants showed a blunted response in this brain region in reaction to potential monetary rewards.

The researchers found that the association between inhibition at 14 to 24 months of age and worsening depressive symptoms from ages 15 to 26 were present only among those who also showed blunted activity in the ventral striatum as adolescents.

There was no similar association with anxiety.

The team found that behavioral inhibition was related to worsening depressive symptoms into adulthood.

This supports the assertion that this temperament shows a stronger relation to developing anxiety in adolescence, but in adulthood, it is tied more strongly to depression.

However, not all inhibited children develop anxiety or depression. It was mainly the inhibited children who showed blunted striatal activity who were more likely to become more depressed in young adulthood.

The current work highlights reward and motivational centers in the brain related to depression.

Additional interventions for these children could target motivational deficits, such as helping them learn to actively create conditions where they can be socially engaged with peers and where they can seek out positive experiences.

If you care about depression, please read studies about vegetarianism linked to a higher risk of depression, and Vitamin D could help reduce depression symptoms.

For more information about mental health, please see recent studies about a major cause of depression in older people, and anxiety therapy can strongly change personality.

The study was conducted by Dr. Alva Tang et al and published in JAMA Psychiatry.

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