Stress during infancy can predict symptoms of anxiety and depression in female adolescents, reports a study published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The study found that these effects of stress in female children are due to levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to altered brain function in adolescence.
Cory Burghy and colleagues studied a group of children from infancy to adolescence as part of the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work. The study collected information about maternal stress during infancy, levels of the stress hormone cortisol during early childhood, and functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess brain function in adolescence. Burghy and colleagues determined that in the female children, levels of stress early in the first year of life predicted cortisol levels later in childhood. Childhood cortisol levels were then predictive of the connectivity between two regions of the brain known to be involved in regulating emotion, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, once the children reached adolescence. This level of brain connectivity was correlated with anxiety and depression symptoms in adolescents. This work provides insight into how stress early in life affects brain function later in life, and how this can lead to the development of mood disorders.