Dr. Katie McLaughlin: Understanding How Stress Causes Anxiety and Depression in Youth

Dr. McLaughlin is using brain imaging and smartphone-enabled technologies to investigate the biology of how stress can lead to anxiety and depression in youth.

The years of adolescence tend to present many stressful events. Not coincidentally, more than 1 in 5 youth age 9 to 17 suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition.  Extensive research shows that anxiety and depression, at any age, are strongly associated with exposure to stressful life events (SLEs). However, little is known about the specific brain mechanisms underlying this connection.

Katie McLaughlin, PhD is our 2015 One Mind Institute / AIM Rising Star Research Award winner, and an Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Washington. McLaughlin’s research pursues a brilliantly direct and original approach to understanding the biology linking the stress of adolescent life with the development of anxiety and depression.

One critical challenge not met by previous studies has been in monitoring participants with sufficient frequency to document the neural changes associated with SLEs. This challenge arises from the speed of changes in the brain that, in turn, influence emotion and behavior, following stressful events. McLaughlin’s team is now observing these changes, as they progress in study participants, continuously using wearable digital technology, as well as monthly, using brain imaging and face-to-face interviews.

These precise assessments could provide the fine-resolution data needed to reveal biological markers of adolescent anxiety and depression early enough to prevent the onset of anxiety and mood disorders.

As of January 2017, McLaughlin’s team has recruited participants and is halfway through collecting the data needed for analysis. Her research is proceeding quickly toward answering three critical questions:

  1. How do stressful life events change the neurobiology underlying how young people respond emotionally to their environment? McLaughlin predicts that after SLEs, teens will assign greater salience to negative emotional stimuli, reflected in heightened response to these cues in the brain’s fear circuits, and reduced pleasure from positive stimuli, reflected in blunted response to positive cues in the brain’s reward circuits. She also predicts that adolescents’ neural circuits regulating positive and negative emotions will be weakened.
  2. Are these stress-induced neurobiological changes governed by daily variations in physical activity, sleep, social behavior, and physiological arousal? She predicts that adolescents will experience reduced sleep duration and quality, reduced social engagement (as seen through reduced frequency of phone and text use), reduced physical activity (tracked by steps), and reduced heart period variability and elevated sympathetic tone, which will mediate changes in brain function following SLEs.
  3. Do these stress-induced changes in neurobiology predict symptoms of anxiety and depression? By correlating fluctuations in neural markers with changes in symptoms monthly, this connection will become clear.

We at One Mind Institute are grateful to the donors of AIM for Mental Health for enabling us to support Dr. McLaughlin as she illuminates the basis for adolescent anxiety and depression. Because of McLaughlin’s groundbreaking research, future generations could be better empowered to overcome childhood adversity, and thrive in productive lives.

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