Brain researchers at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) brain imaging to identify what happens in the brains of teens when neutral information is translated into “threatening.” Funded in part by a 2008 NARSAD Grant, the researchers discovered increased activity in the section of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex when teens had anxious reactions to neutral stimuli.
The researchers worked with 31 teens, 16 of whom had anxiety disorders and 15 who did not. Each adolescent received an fMRI scan while looking at pictures of people with a neutral look on their face. The faces were accompanied by either a neutral statement or a potentially threatening statement. For the teens without anxiety disorders, the context didn’t matter―the neutral images remained neutral and did not provoke an anxious response. But for the teens with anxiety disorders, the neutral faces often provoked anxiety when the potentially threatening statements were heard. When the researchers measured brain activity in these situations, they found increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.
Co-author of the study and NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee, Tara Peris, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA says that this is among the first studies aimed at understanding how anxious youths make sense of neutral stimuli and the conditions under which their brains might elicit heightened patterns of activation. Further research is needed to examine more definitively the role of this part of the brain in adolescent anxiety and the extent to which it may serve as a biomarker, or predictor, for those who develop illness.