Amygdala and Anxiety

Response to anxiety in previously institutionalized youths

The amygdala is commonly known as the fear control center of our brain, but it also plays an important role in ensuring our survival by directing attention to salient stimuli. Studies have shown that exposure to adversity in early childhood affects amygdala development, resulting in lasting consequences for emotional regulation. In a recent paper from the Developmental Affective Neuroscience Lab at Columbia University, co-authored by Yale assistant professor Dylan Gee, researchers found an increased association between amygdala activity and symptoms of anxiety in youths with a history of previous institutional care, compared to peers who experienced typical care-giving early in life.

Youths aged 8 to 19 were asked to detect either calming or threatening stimuli while their brain activity was monitored using fMRI, a technique that images brain activity in real time. The researchers found that for youths who have previously been in institutional care, those with greater amygdala activity when responding to stressful stimuli also had higher level of anxiety. The results suggest a heightened relationship between amygdala responses and anxious behaviors after a major stressful experience at an early age. Identifying specific alterations [in the amygdala] that relate to anxiety can help us identify targets for treatments for behaviors such as hypervigilance,Gee explained.

This study is part of a larger body of research seeking to understand how trauma influences brain and emotional development. Evidence suggests that youths who have experienced early life adversities have differential maturation of brain circuitry involved in vigilance and attention,Gee said. This gives us a window into the developmental time-course of brain development in these youths, which can help optimize treatment for youths who have experienced early life stress and trauma. Findings in this area could potentially be extended to help trauma victims.