General News Research — 18 June 2012

Going through early puberty puts a child at greater risk for anxiety and depression later in adolescence, according to researchers at the University of Melbourne.

By studying magnetic resonance images of the brains of 155 adolescents (ages 12, 15, and 18), researchers discovered that participants who went through puberty earlier than their peers had a larger pituitary gland and were in turn more prone to depression in their later teen years.

The pituitary gland is the part of the brain that triggers puberty.

The lead researcher, Sarah Whittle, Ph.D., said the results indicate there may be a biological reason why children — especially girls — who go through early puberty are more likely to experience depression in young adulthood.

Previously, the ongoing theory suggested it was a largely social problem caused by being teased about early development.

The pituitary gland sends out the hormones that trigger the physical and emotional changes that go with puberty. But the gland also plays a vital role in the brain’s stress mechanism, so it may be that early puberty causes the gland to be overstimulated, weakening the ability for young people to cope with stress.

”These [pubertal] changes are actually having particularly long-term effects on the brain structure, where the brain is plastic and can change shape,” Whittle said.

George Patton, Ph.D., a professor of adolescent health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, said where puberty was once thought to start with the first signs of physical changes, researchers now know that hormonal changes associated with puberty can begin in children as young as 7. In turn, this may affect their emotional development and stress-coping abilities.

As first appeared in Psych Central, 4 June 2012


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