New breakthrough could identify early mental health problems in teenagers

PUBLISHED: 11:14 27 July 2016 | UPDATED: 11:47 05 August 2016

Scientists say the brains of teenagers change dramatically in adolescence

Scientists say the brains of teenagers change dramatically in adolescence

Eltoddo

Why teenagers are prone to mental health problems

Scientists have moved a giant step closer to understanding why teenagers develop schizophrenia and depression.

A new study, undertaken by the University of Cambridge and University College London (UCL), revealed that teenagers can have signs of mental illness long before any symptoms appear.

"This study gives us a clue why this is the case: it’s during these teenage years that those brain regions that have the strongest link to the schizophrenia risk genes are developing most rapidly."

Professor Ed Bullmore, Head of Psychiatry at Cambridge

Scientists mapped the brains of almost 300 people between the ages of 14 and 24 to give them a better understanding of why the first signs of schizophrenia and depression appear in late adolescence.

They compared their brain structures using MRI scans and discovered that the regions of the brain linked to schizophrenia developed the fastest during the teenage years.

Experts have likened the disruption of the teenage brain network to problems with passenger traffic flows at a major airport - the outcome has a big impact on communication of information.Experts have likened the disruption of the teenage brain network to problems with passenger traffic flows at a major airport - the outcome has a big impact on communication of information.

The outer regions of the brain, known as the cortex, shrink in size, becoming thinner.

This means that levels of myelin, the sheath that ‘insulates’ nerve fibres in the brain, allowing them to communicate efficiently, increase within the cortex.

It had been previously thought that myelin mainly resided in the so-called ‘white matter’ - the brain tissue that connects areas different regions and allows for information to be communicated between them.

Dr Kirstie Whitaker from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, the study’s first author, explained: “During our teenage years, our brains continue to develop. “When we’re still children, these changes may be more dramatic, but in adolescence we see that the changes refine the detail. The hubs that connect different regions are becoming set in place as the most important connections strengthen. We believe this is where we are seeing myelin increasing in adolescence.”

Researchers found that those brain regions that exhibited the greatest MRI changes during the teenage years were those in which genes linked to a risk of schizophrenia risk.

“Adolescence can be a difficult transitional period and it’s when we typically see the first signs of mental health disorders such as schizophrenia and depression,” explained Professor Ed Bullmore, Head of Psychiatry at Cambridge.

“This study gives us a clue why this is the case: it’s during these teenage years that those brain regions that have the strongest link to the schizophrenia risk genes are developing most rapidly.

“As these regions are important hubs that control how regions of our brain communicate with each other, it shouldn’t be too surprising that when something goes wrong there, it will affect how smoothly our brains work. If one imagines these major hubs of the brain network to be like international airports in the airline network, then we can see that disrupting the development of brain hubs could have as big an impact on communication of information across the brain network as disruption of a major airport, like Heathrow, will have on flow of passenger traffic across the airline network.”

The study was funded by a Strategic Award from the Wellcome Trust to the Neuroscience in Psychiatry Network (NSPN) Consortium.

Dr Raliza Stoyanova in the Neuroscience and Mental Health team at Wellcome, said: “A number of mental health conditions first manifest during adolescence. Although we know that the adolescent brain undergoes dramatic structural changes, the precise nature of those changes and how they may be linked to disease is not understood.

“This study sheds much needed light on brain development in this crucial time period, and will hopefully spark further research in this area, and tell us more about the origins of serious mental health conditions such as schizophrenia.”

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