Public Release: 

Brain's response to angry or fearful faces may reveal vulnerability to stress

Cell Press

Duke University scientists have a new strategy to predict whether individuals are at an increased risk for depression or anxiety after stressful events, and therefore might benefit from interventions aimed at safeguarding their mental health.

In the February 4th issue of the Cell Press journal Neuron, the researchers report a correlation between how a college student's brain responds to photos of angry or fearful faces and their ability to recover from breakups or financial emergencies months or years in the future.

When shown the triggering photos, participants whose functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans recorded higher activity in their amygdala--clumps of neurons with important roles in detecting threats and remembering negative information--went on to assess themselves as more prone to depression or anxiety after stressful events during follow-up surveys.

"We found that stronger responses of the amygdala predict greater symptoms of depression and anxiety in response to stress as much as 1 to 4 years in the future," says lead author Dr. Johnna Swartz, a psychology and neuroscience postdoctoral associate at Duke University.

The investigators measured amygdala activity in 750 college students aged 18 to 22 years old, all of whom said they were free of depression or anxiety disorders at the start of the study. After the imaging scans, all participants were contacted by e-mail every three months and invited to complete a short online survey of their current mood and experience of stressful life events. About 350 students filled out a follow-up survey; of these, more than half completed an assessment at least one year after scanning.

In addition to identifying a risk marker for developing future mental health symptoms, the results suggest that finding therapies or drugs that decrease the activity of the amygdala may be most effective for preventing or alleviating stress-related depression and anxiety. Also, by identifying genetic or environmental factors that contribute to heightened amygdala activity, researchers may gain a better understanding of the pathways through which stress-related anxiety and depression develop.

While the findings may not ease the pain that people feel after they lose a loved one, develop a serious medical condition, or suffer financial hardships, they may help vulnerable individuals obtain early treatment and avoid developing chronic psychological problems.

"It's clear that treating mental illness is generally ineffective and, as with other branches of medicine, that the best strategy is to prevent illness in the first place," says cognitive neuroscientist and senior author Dr. Ahmad Hariri. "Our findings contribute to ongoing efforts to develop strategies for preventing mental illness by identifying a measure of brain function that distinguishes those at greatest risk before they become ill."

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Neuron, Swartz et al.: "A Neural Biomarker of Psychological Vulnerability to Future Life Stress"

Neuron, published by Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that has established itself as one of the most influential and relied upon journals in the field of neuroscience and one of the premier intellectual forums of the neuroscience community. It publishes interdisciplinary articles that integrate biophysical, cellular, developmental, and molecular approaches with a systems approach to sensory, motor, and higher-order cognitive functions. For more information, please visit http://www.cell.com/neuron. To receive media alerts for Neuron or other Cell Press journals, please contact press@cell.com.

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