Accelerated brain maturation linked to stress in childhood

A new has found that stress experienced in the early stages of childhood accelerates the maturation of particular regions of the brain in adolescence, while stress in later life is associated with slower maturation.

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The findings are the result of a 20-year study by researchers in Radboud University and will be published in Scientific reports.

The study began in 1998 with 129 children, all aged one. Over the next 20 years, the researchers observed the children at play, and took regular MRI images. The data was later used to asses the effect of stress on the brain during adolescence.

One of the principal aspects of the study was how cerebral maturation is influenced by stress. Our brains undergo a process wherein existing interactions between brain cells are revised to enable new networks to be developed that achieve optimal performance.

The effects of negative life events were seen in children between 0-5 years, and 14-17 years. The prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdale are the regions of the brain that contribute most significantly to how we act in social and emotional situations. They are also particularly susceptible to stress.

Accelerated maturation of the prefrontal cortex and amygdale during childhood was observed when subjects underwent typical negative experiences including illness and divorce.

Slower maturation of the hippocampus and a different area of the prefrontal cortex was observed in stress derived from a negative social environment, like when subjects experience a lack of peer support.

The fact that early childhood stress accelerates the maturation process during adolescence is consistent with theories of evolutionary biology.

From an evolutionary perspective, it is useful to mature faster if you grow up in a stressful environment. However, it also prevents the brain from adjusting to the current environment in a flexible way. In other words, the brain become "mature" too soon.”

Anna Tyborowska, Radboud University

The discovery that social stress in adult life contributes to slower maturation in adolescence was the most significant and unexpected outcome of the study, and that increased stress can produce antisocial personality traits in people. The subjects, now in their twenties, are undergoing a final round of measurements.

Commenting on her intentions for further research, Tyborowska said: “Now that we know that stress affects the maturation of brain regions that also play a role in the control of emotions, we can investigate how this development continues later in life”.

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