Psychosocial stress and brain function in adolescent psychopathology

American Journal of Psychiatry, 2017

The authors sought to explore how conduct, hyperactivity/inattention, and emotional symptoms are associated with neural reactivity to social-emotional stimuli, and the extent to which psychosocial stress modulates these relationships.

Participants were community adolescents recruited as part of the European IMAGEN study. Bilateral amygdala regions of interest were used to assess the relationship between the three symptom domains and functional MRI neural reactivity during passive viewing of dynamic angry and neutral facial expressions. Exploratory functional connectivity and whole brain multiple regression approaches were used to analyze how the symptoms and psychosocial stress relate to other brain regions.

In response to the social-emotional stimuli, adolescents with high levels of conduct or hyperactivity/inattention symptoms who had also experienced a greater number of stressful life events showed hyperactivity of the amygdala and several regions across the brain. This effect was not observed with emotional symptoms. A cluster in the midcingulate was found to be common to both conduct problems and hyperactivity symptoms. Exploratory functional connectivity analyses suggested that amygdala-precuneus connectivity is associated with hyperactivity/inattention symptoms.

The results link hyperactive amygdala responses and regions critical for top-down emotional processing with high levels of psychosocial stress in individuals with greater conduct and hyperactivity/inattention symptoms. This work highlights the importance of studying how psychosocial stress affects functional brain responses to social-emotional stimuli, particularly in adolescents with externalizing symptoms.