Donders Wonders Blog

Childhood stress influences teenagers brain development

This post is also available in Dutch.

Too much stress during childhood may speed up the development of the brain. This may have potential mental health consequences.

Image from Pixabay.

A recent study from the Donders Institute and Behavioural Science Institute found that stress during early life may impact brain development during adolescence. Anna Tyborowska, one of the leading researchers, explained her main findings to Donders Wonders:

Adolescence is a critical transitional stage from childhood to adulthood, usually starting around the age of 10-12. It is a time of change on many levels: emotional, social, neural, and hormonal. As a result of all these changes, teenagers are particularly susceptible to the effects of stress because their brain is still developing. One of these maturational processes is pruning: the brain is becoming more efficient by refining existing connections between brain cells and cutting away those it doesn’t need. By examining brain scans, we can see these changes reflected in decreases of grey matter (tissue in the brain that contains cells bodies and their synaptic connections). This is a normal process that occurs during adolescence in many brain regions but particularly in regions important for socio-emotional behavior like the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. These two brain regions are also highly susceptible to stress hormones. We therefore investigated how the development of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala between mid and late adolescence (age 14 to 17) is affected by stress occurring during childhood (until 5 years of age).

Early childhood stress
Stress due to negative life experiences during childhood, such as illness or divorce, appears to be related to more pruning in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. This means that, in addition to the normal decrease in grey matter during adolescence, the brains of teenagers that experienced a more stressful childhood had even more decreases in grey matter. This “faster” maturation of the brain is in line with evolutionary theories suggesting that if you grow up in a stressful, risky environment, it is useful to mature faster in order to ensure that you reach reproductive success.

Why is this important?
Although rapid development can be helpful in a risky and stressful environment, for example, for reproductive purposes, we know from other studies that faster brain maturation can have negatively influence mental health later in life. This is connected to the fact that the prefrontal-amygdala circuit is important for socio-emotional behavior. Adolescence is supposed to be a time when the brain is still flexible and open to new experiences. If this window closes earlier, the brain can no longer take advantage of the flexibility offered during the teenage years; it becomes “mature” too soon.

These findings are particularly relevant in light of current events (e.g., recent family separation policy of immigrants in the US) by showing that even without current signs of psychopathology, early life stress can have a significant impact many years later on brain development up until late adolescence.

Written by guest blogger Anna Tyborowska, edited by Mahur Hashemi.

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