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Link Between Brain Structure and Psychological Symptoms in Adolescents

MRI data found physical features in the brain associated with anxiety, depression and impulsivity in children and adolescents.

Valerie Brown, Contributor
Monday, August 27, 2018


Psychological categories distinguish between internalized and externalized disorders, namely symptoms that the sufferer internalizes, such as depression and anxiety, and those the sufferer directs at other people, such as impulsivity and aggression. Both types of disorder affect emotions and reward systems in the brain, which are handled by parts of the prefrontal cortex.

Researchers at Columbia University set out to clarify understanding of the brain structures of children who suffer from combined internalized and externalized symptoms. They studied 328 children between 7 and 21 years old who had completed MRIs and self-reported surveys of depression, anxiety and impulsivity. Their results appeared in the July 24 issue of NeuroImage: Clinical.

Similar to previous studies, the researchers did not find correlation among any symptoms and brain surface area or age. However, they discovered that thinning of the prefrontal cortex was associated with both depression and impulsivity, even though the thinning occurred in different cortical regions. The researchers also found that smaller hippocampus and larger pallidal volumes are correlated to depressive symptoms but not impulsivity.

The researchers noted that most studies of brain structure and psychological disorders involve adults, but because brain development in the young is highly nonlinear, longitudinal studies are needed to understand the relationship between variable, cross-category psychological symptoms and the phases of brain growth and differentiation in young people.