During functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain, data on physiological fluctuations in white matter are collected. These fluctuations are caused by cardiac pulses, cerebrovascular dysfunction, and other factors. Increasing fluctuations have been linked to cognitive impairment with age.
Vascular problems in adults with bipolar disorder have been linked to cerebrovascular disease, a group of conditions that affect bloodflow to the brain. In a recent study, researcher Arron W. S. Metcalfe and colleagues used data on physiological fluctuations in white matter (usually a nuisance variable) to assess the vascular health of teens with bipolar disorder. Compared to 32 age-, IQ-, and sex-matched controls, 32 adolescents with bipolar disorder had more fluctuations in white matter in three different clusters in the brain.
These white matter fluctuations are a possible early indicator of susceptibility to cerebrovascular disease in teens with bipolar disorder. Patients with depression and bipolar disorder are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, so maintaining a good diet, exercising regularly, and assessing blood pressure, cholesterol, and lipid levels is recommended. See page __ where we describe research showing teens with bipolar disorder have stiffer artery walls.
New research clarifies how trauma in early life can lead to obesity in adolescence. In a study of 160 young people between the ages of 9 and 15, researcher Janitza Montalvo-Ortiz and colleagues identified seven sites in the genome where DNA methylation predicted body mass index (BMI) in adolescence. The researchers also collected information on family traumas that occurred during the participants’ childhoods and found that DNA methylation and family trauma such as child abuse interacted to predict BMI.
Epigenetics describes the ways life experiences can change how easily DNA is turned on or off. While the genes coded by DNA sequences one inherits from one’s parents never change, the structure of DNA can change. DNA methylation is one type of epigenetic change that refers to the addition of methyl groups to promoter regions of DNA in response to life events.
In this research, which was presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Montalvo-Ortiz and colleagues found that the site of DNA methylation with the strongest link to BMI in adolescence was a gene called MAP2K3. This gene had previously been linked to obesity, but this is the first time DNA methylation at this site has been linked to both obesity and childhood trauma. Other relevant gene sites where DNA methylation occurred include ANKRD2, CPXM2, NUBPL, and RFK.
A 2016 article by Heli Malm and colleagues in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that in utero exposure to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants may increase the risk of depression in adolescence. However, the study included potentially confounding factors. It is possible that women who took SSRIs during pregnancy had more severe depression than those who went unmedicated during pregnancy. The mothers in the study who took SSRIs also had more comorbid conditions such as substance abuse.
Editor’s Note: Women should balance the risks and benefits of antidepressant use during pregnancy, since depression itself can have adverse effects on both mother and fetus. It has recently been established that SSRI use during pregnancy does not cause birth defects, so women with depression that has not responded to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as psychotherapy, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, exercise, mindfulness, and repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) may still want to consider SSRIs.
Depression and Bipolar Disorder in Adolescence Linked to Early-Onset Cardiovascular Disease and Hardening of the Arteries
The link between mood disorders and cardiovascular illnesses has been clear for some time. Now there is evidence that this link begins early in life. In 2015, the American Heart Association issued a statement that adolescents with major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder are at increased risk for both accelerated atherosclerosis (narrowing and hardening of the arteries) and early-onset cardiovascular disease.
In the statement, the American Heart Association recommended that major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder be classified as “tier II” conditions (which also include HIV and chronic inflammatory disease) that confer a moderate risk of disease.
Until recently, it had been assumed that the increased risk of cardiovascular disease among people with depression or bipolar disorder was a result of behaviors linked to these illnesses, such as higher rates of smoking, obesity, or diabetes, which increases heart disease. Some psychiatric medication can also bring about risk factors for cardiovascular problems. It turns out that these types of factors could not fully explain the increased risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease among people who had depression or bipolar disorder in their teens.
It is not clear why depression and bipolar disorder make cardiovascular illness more likely, though it may be due to blood vessel damage resulting from inflammation or oxidative stress.
The American Heart Association recommends that pediatricians and cardiologists pay particular attention to this link by identifying and treating mental illness as early as possible and by making sure that their colleagues understand the role of mental illnesses in cardiovascular risk.
A gene that plays a role in the pruning of synapses has been linked to schizophrenia. The gene encodes an immune protein called complement component 4 (C4), which may mediate the pruning of synapses, the connections between neurons. Researchers led by Aswin Sekar found that in mice, C4 was responsible for the elimination of synapses. The team linked gene variants that lead to more production of C4A proteins to excessive pruning of synapses during adolescence, the period during which schizophrenia symptoms typically appear. This may explain why the brains of people with schizophrenia have fewer neural connections. The researchers hope that future therapies may target the genetic roots of the illness rather than simply treating its symptoms.
In boys, a decrease in the thickness of the cortex is a part of normal maturation. However, according to a recent study, this process is sped up in boys at high risk for schizophrenia when they use marijuana before the age of 16.
Early use of marijuana has been linked to subsequent development of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia begins about 5 years earlier in males than in females, and the male brain goes through more structural changes during adolescence.
A 2015 article by Tomáš Paus in the journal JAMA Psychiatry incorporated data from three studies, which took place in parts of Canada and England and eight European cities. The studies all included magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the participants, a measure of their genetic risk of developing schizophrenia, and questions about their past marijuana use. In boys at high risk for schizophrenia based on their genetic profile, cortical thickness dropped more among the ones who used high amounts of marijuana before the age of 16 compared to those who did not.
Paus hypothesizes that the development of schizophrenia is a “two-hit process.” People who develop schizophrenia may have an early risk factor, such as their genetic profile or a problem that occurs in utero, and a later stressor such as drug use in adolescence.
Adolescence can be a time of vulnerability to illness. Anxiety disorders increase during this period, and three-quarters of adults with anxiety disorders trace the illness back to their childhood or adolescence. The most common treatments for anxiety disorder are based on the idea of fear extinction. A certain stimulus, like a social situation or seeing a spider, provokes a fear reaction in the brain. Through gradually increasing exposure to the stimulus and extinction training, the person becomes desensitized to the stimulus. New research on rodents presented by Francis S. Lee at the 2015 meeting of the Society for Biological Psychiatry suggests that the extinction process is diminished during adolescence.
At specific stages of maturation, neural circuits related to particular abilities can become flexible. Brain and behavior become sensitive to and are increasingly shaped by experience. Studies of rodents and humans have shown that adolescence is a time when the neural circuitry for fear extinction is in flux. In mice, this period falls around their 29th day of life. Lee reported that around this time, the mice begin to exhibit resistance to extinction of fear learning.
In adolescent rodents, there is a surge of contextual fear learning and retrieval that is mediated by hyper-connectivity of the ventral hippocampus and the amygdala to the prelimbic part of the prefrontal cortex. In contrast, the pathway from the amygdala to the infralimbic cortex mediates the extinction of this type of learning. Because the prelimbic pathway for fear learning is overactive, the infralimbic pathway for extinction learning is less effective.
Adolescent mice temporarily lose their ability to retrieve memories related to cue-dependent (as opposed to context-dependent) fear learning. Remarkably, when these animals proceed into adulthood, the fear learning associated with cues returns and becomes accessible again.
This could help explain how teenagers can lose fear conditioning to cues (for example, speeding through a red light) they learned in childhood. The fear is forgotten (or becomes inaccessible) in adolescence, but then what had been learned is again “remembered” (retrieved) in adulthood. Read more
Adolescence may be a period of particular vulnerability to the effects of stress. New research by Shannon Gourley indicates a possible mechanism for this vulnerability. When Gourley exposed adolescent mice to low levels of the stress hormone corticosterone (the equivalent to human cortisol), they developed habit-based rather than goal-oriented decision-making, leading to behaviors that resembled human depression, which lasted into adulthood. Adult mice that were exposed to the low levels of corticosterone were not affected by it.
Gourley also used an alternative method of producing these stress responses a second time by silencing the trkB receptor for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the amygdala and hippocampus of the mice. The depression-like behaviors that resulted, such as lack of motivation, were able to be reversed by treating the mice with 7,8-dihydroxyflavone, a drug that activated the trkB receptor. In the adolescent mice, this treatment had antidepressant effects that lasted into adulthood, even though the treatment stopped earlier.
As young mice transition into adolescence, they experience a “sensitive” period in which their context-based fear memories are temporarily suppressed. In a recent study, young animals learned to avoid an environment associated with a mild shock. Later, when they entered adolescence, this learning was temporarily forgotten or suppressed. However, when the same mice aged into adulthood, they reacquired this learned fear memory and began to again avoid the environment associated with the earlier shock. This temporary loss of fear memory differs in mice depending on their genes.
At the 2012 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, researcher Francis S. Lee reported that mice with a certain genetic variation display an impairment of this fear memory process. There are several common variants of the gene responsible for the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which protects neurons and is necessary for long-term memory. Mice with the poorer functioning variant known as Val66Met (as opposed to the better functioning Val66Val) fail to recall the earlier fear-related events not only in adolescence, but also in adulthood when the fear memory is usually retrievable again.
Editor’s Note: In mice and humans, Val66Val is the most frequently occurring allele in the population, but Val66Met is also a fairly common variation of the BDNF gene. It is this Val66Met allele that is associated with not retaining earlier learned experience about a “dangerous” environment that should be avoided.
These data suggest an intriguing explanation for some of the “wild” behavior and poor judgment to which even the smartest adolescents are prone. This kind of behavior may be based in part on the temporary forgetting in adolescence of earlier learning about which situations or environments are safe versus which ones are dangerous. Read more