Teens with mental health issues may have different wiring in their brains, according to research from the University of Alberta. The research, led by Anthony Singhal, a psychology professor at UofA, builds on similar findings previously reported about adult populations.
The team’s work involved teens aged 14-17 with a history including mental health issues like depression, ADHD, and anxiety. A second set of teens in the same age range with no such background were also examined for control purposes. The goal of the study was to examine differences in the white matter that makes up the brain’s neural pathways using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
White matter is found deep in the brain’s tissues and contains nerve fibres (known as axons), which are long and slender extensions of neurons that conduct electrical impulses away from the cell body to communicate with other cells. You can think of them like the wires that connect various areas of the brain. The maturation of white matter can trigger significant structural change during adolescence, a period in which a lot of mental health conditions begin to emerge.
Levels of risk-taking and behavioural issues are generally higher for teens, and mental illnesses can make matters much worse. Suicide is the second-leading cause for teen deaths in Canada, and depression and anxiety are major risk factors.
Understanding adolescent brains and how they relate to behaviour, particularly in vulnerable populations, is therefore extremely important.
Differences found in teens with mental health issues
The two groups under observation by the team ended up exhibiting distinctly different pathways in the results.
“We saw pathways that were less structurally efficient in the patients compared to the healthy controls,” explained Singhal in the UofA press release.
“Moreover, those observations correlated with attentional control test scores. In other words, less neural efficiency in key pathways was associated with an overall reduced tendency to focus attention.”
Previous research on adults has suggested that weaker connections are associated not only with increases in symptoms of poor mental health but also with lower cognitive scores. Singhal and his team built on this by being one of the first to explore the same in adolescent populations.
A limitation of the research concerns the potentially confounding factor of medication. Controlling for the type, dose, or duration of meds is a recurring issue in psychiatric research.
The extent to which meds affect structural brain imaging remains something of an open question, and although the researchers acknowledge that they don’t know whether white matter itself is affected, they believe it likely is. They added that future studies should try to examine these effects more systematically when datasets with larger sample sizes become available.
Still, they are hopeful this study can be a base from which future researchers can make a more detailed picture.
“We can’t paint with broad strokes that we are talking about differences between people’s brains,” said Singhal. “It’s just not that simple. But we do have to start somewhere, and this is a great jumping-off point.”