Structural Brain Differences in Youths With Behavioral Problems

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Youths with behavioral problems such as antisocial and aggressive behavior show reduced gray matter in several areas of the brain, according to research published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham, England, found that compared with normally developing young adults, those with behavioral problems had reduced gray matter in the amygdala, insula, and prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain important in decision-making, empathic responses, reading facial expressions, and emotion regulation. These processes have been shown to be deficient in young adults with behavioral problems.

“We know that severe behavioral problems in youths are not only predictive of antisocial and aggressive behavior in adulthood, but also substance misuse, mental health problems, and poor physical health,” said Stephane De Brito, PhD, from the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham. “For that reason, behavioral problems are an essential target for prevention efforts.”

The researchers examined brain imaging data from 13 existing studies involving 394 youths with behavioral problems (mean age 14 years)  and 350 normally developing youths, making it the largest study on this topic.

Nevertheless, many unanswered questions remain, such as whether environmental factors like smoking or substance abuse during pregnancy, or maltreatment in early childhood, could be associated with these structural neural differences.

The researchers noted that future studies should examine whether these structural differences are present early in life, whether they last over time, and whether they can be influenced by therapeutic interventions.

Dr. De Brito noted that some of these questions will be addressed in a large multi-site study they are involved in.

Structural Brain Differences in Youths With Behavioral Problems
Those with behavioral problems had reduced gray matter in the amygdala, insula, and prefrontal cortex.

Young people with behavioral problems, such as antisocial and aggressive behavior, show reduced grey matter volume in a number of areas of the brain, according to a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The researchers from the University of Birmingham found that, compared to typically developing youths, those with behavioural problems show grey matter reductions specifically within the amygdala, the insula, and the prefrontal cortex.

These brain areas are important for decision-making, empathic responses, reading facial expressions and emotion regulation; key cognitive and affective processes that are shown to be deficient in youths with behavioral problems.

The article combined brain imaging data from 13 existing studies including 394 youths with behavioral problems and 350 typically developing youths, making it the largest study on this topic.

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