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Preschool and school-age irritability predict reward-related brain function

Emerging evidence supports an association between youth irritability and reward-related brain functioning


Washington, DC, June 4, 2018 -- Preschool irritability and concurrent irritability were uniquely associated with aberrant patterns of reward-related brain connectivity, highlighting the importance of developmental timing of irritability for brain function, finds a study published in the June 2018 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP).

"Irritability is one of the most frequent reasons for treatment referral and is present across multiple emotional and behavioral disorders," said lead author Lea Dougherty, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the University of Maryland College Park. "Chronic irritability in school-age children and adolescents predicts depressive and anxiety disorders, suicidality, and functional impairment in adulthood. Despite its prevalence and central role in developmental psychopathology, the pathophysiology of irritability is largely unknown.

"These findings provide some insight into the neural circuitry underlying irritability and is a step toward uncovering biomarkers for early identification and treatment of youth irritability," Dr. Dougherty added.

The findings were based on a subset of children recruited for a longitudinal study examining early risk for depression. Children's irritability was assessed during the preschool period (ages 3.0-5.9 years) and three years later (ages 5.9-9.6 years). At the follow-up assessment, 46 children (28 females) performed monetary incentive delay tasks in which they either received rewards if they successfully hit a target, or no reward regardless of performance, while being scanned with fMRI imaging.

The research team found that children who had more severe preschool irritability, controlling for concurrent irritability, exhibited altered reward-related connectivity: right amygdala with insula and inferior parietal lobe as well as left ventral striatum with lingual gyrus, post-central gyrus, superior parietal lobe and culmen.

Children with more versus less severe irritability concurrent with the neuroimaging assessment, controlling for preschool irritability, exhibited a similar pattern of altered connectivity between left and right amygdalae and superior frontal gyrus, and between left ventral striatum and precuneus and culmen. Neural differences associated with irritability were most evident between reward and no reward conditions when participants missed the target. These findings highlight how reward-related neural circuits may be altered in youth with increased irritability during preschool and school-age, suggesting possible mechanisms underlying mood dysregulation.


Notes for editors
The article is "Preschool and School-Age Irritability Predict Reward-Related Brain Function," by Lea Dougherty, PhD, Karen T. G. Schwartz, MS, Maria Kryza-Lacombe, MA, Jill Weisberg, PhD, Philip A. Spechler, MA, and Jillian Lee Wiggins, PhD ( It appears in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, volume 57, issue 6 (June 2018), published by Elsevier.

Dr. Dougherty and Mr. Spechler are with the University of Maryland, College Park. Drs. Wiggins and Weisberg, Mss. Schwartz and Kryzo-Lacome are with San Diego State University and University of California, San Diego Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology.

This research was supported by the Maryland Neuroimaging Center Seed Grant Program (LRD), National Science Foundation in partnership with the University of Maryland Type: ADVANCE Program for Inclusive Excellence (LRD & Tracy Riggins), University of Maryland College of Behavioral and Social Sciences Dean's MRI Research Initiative RFP Program (LRD & Tracy Riggins), Behavioral and Social Sciences Dean's Research Initiative (LRD), and the Research and Scholarship Award (LRD).

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Mary Billingsley at"> or +1 202 587 9672. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Lea Dougherty, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742 at">

Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP) is the official publication of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. JAACAP is the leading journal focusing exclusively on today's psychiatric research and treatment of the child and adolescent. Published twelve times per year, each issue is committed to its mission of advancing the science of pediatric mental health and promoting the care of youth and their families.

The Journal's purpose is to advance research, clinical practice, and theory in child and adolescent psychiatry. It is interested in manuscripts from diverse viewpoints, including genetic, epidemiological, neurobiological, cognitive, behavioral, psychodynamic, social, cultural, and economic. Studies of diagnostic reliability and validity, psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological treatment efficacy, and mental health services effectiveness are encouraged. The Journal also seeks to promote the well-being of children and families by publishing scholarly papers on such subjects as health policy, legislation, advocacy, culture and society, and service provision as they pertain to the mental health of children and families.

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Media contact
Mary Billingsley
JAACAP Editorial Office
+1 202 587 9672">


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