Family problems early in life might raise boys’ risk of depression and anxiety, which is also tied to altered brain structure in their late teens and early 20s, a new study suggests.
But the findings have a bright side, one researcher said.
“Early life experiences have an effect on the brain,” said Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, president of The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in New York City. But “what is most interesting and exciting about this study is that just as trauma can have a negative effect on the brain, positive experiences — including therapy and other interventions — can have a positive effect on the young brain and ultimately affect the level of functioning of the individual,” he said. Borenstein was not involved in the new research.
The British study was led by Edward Barker, of King’s College London, and included nearly 500 males, ages 18 to 21. The mothers of the young men provided the researchers with information about family difficulties experienced by their sons between birth and age 6.
While this study couldn’t prove cause and effect, those boys who faced family problems during those early years were more likely to have depression and anxiety at ages 7, 10 and 13, the researchers said. They also were more likely to have lower volume of a form of tissue known as “gray matter” in the brain by the time they reached ages 18 to 21.
“The finding that childhood experiences can affect the brain highlights early childhood not only as a period of vulnerability but also a period of opportunity,” Barker’s team wrote.
Agreeing with Borenstein, they said that “interventions toward adversity might help” prevent mental health issues and/or neurological changes in young adults.
Dr. Matthew Lorber is acting director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He called the study “important, because it stresses the need for early interventions for children growing up in high-stress environments.”
However, he added that “the study is limited in that it only looked at males, and should be repeated for females to compare.”
The findings were published online Aug. 17 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about brain development during childhood and adolescence.