Research — 05 January 2016

Young people with behavioral problems, such as antisocial and aggressive behavior, show reduced grey matter volume in a number of areas of the brain, according to a new study.

Grey matter is involved in processing signals and information in the brain, and makes up nearly half of brain volume. Researchers from the University of Birmingham in England found that, compared to typically developing youths, those with behavioral problems show grey matter reductions specifically within the amygdala, the insula and the prefrontal cortex.

These brain areas are important for decision-making, empathic responses, reading facial expressions, and emotion regulation; key cognitive and affective processes that are shown to be deficient in youths with behavioral problems, the researchers noted.

The new research combined brain imaging data from 13 existing studies that included 394 kids with behavioral problems and 350 typically developing kids.

“We know that severe behavioral problems in youths are not only predictive of antisocial and aggressive behavior in adulthood, but also substance misuse, mental health problems, and poor physical health,” said Dr. Stephane De Brito, lead author of the study.

“For that reason, behavioral problems are an essential target for prevention efforts and our study advances understanding of the brain regions associated with aggressive and antisocial behavior in youths.”

The researchers caution, however, that a number of unanswered questions still remain. For example, the extent to which these structural differences in the brain are associated with environmental factors, such as smoking or substance abuse during pregnancy and maltreatment in early childhood, is still poorly understood, they note.

“There are a lot of questions still outstanding,” said Dr. Jack Rogers, a research fellow at the university. “For instance, prospective longitudinal studies are needed to assess if these structural differences are present early in life and if they persist over a longer period of time.

 “In future research, it will also be important to examine if these brain differences, and the affective and cognitive processes they are involved in, can be influenced by therapeutic interventions to promote a good outcome in adult life.”

Some of these questions will be addressed in a study the researchers are currently involved in, according to De Brito.

“This research will be carried out on children and adolescents from seven European countries to examine the environmental and neurobiological factors implicated in the development of behavioral problems in male and female youths,” he noted.

The latest study was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

This article first appeared on ‘Psych Central’ on 3 January 2015.


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