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Brain Imaging Helps Predict Mental Distress in Kids

scientist looking at the results of a brain scan

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Key Takeaways

  • Examining the brain images of adolescents may predict if they will deal with mental health issues.
  • A child's brain is still developing at age 12, and the brain's changing nature may make it more vulnerable to mental health distress.
  • Having another indicator of mental health concerns in youth can be beneficial for parents, therapists, and teachers.

One out of seven kids aged 10 to 19 has a mental health disorder. While symptoms can begin in early childhood, exact causes can vary, and in some cases, are not known. A history of mental health issues in the family is one strong predictor of issues in adolescents.

A new study now introduces another warning signal of mental distress in kids—their brain structure.

“Each of us has a unique synchronization pattern of different brain regions equivalent to a fingerprint,” explains Zack Shan, PhD, senior research fellow and Head of Neuroimaging Platform at the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Thompson Institute.

Shan is the lead author of the study. “Findings from this study suggest that brain fingerprinting, measured using MRI while someone is still healthy, can potentially predict their future mental ill-health,” he adds.

Understanding how the brain impacts mental health can be a powerful tool for parents, educators, and mental health professionals.

We take a look at what we can learn about kids’ mental health by looking at images of the brain, the impact of abnormal brain structure on their mental health, and what role parents can play in helping their kids.

Details of the Study

Researchers with University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia performed brain scans on participants in their local area. Images were taken in four-month intervals, continuing for up to five years.

Scans were done on over 60 children starting at age 12 using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The kids also completed questionnaires to measure their depression and anxiety levels.

Researchers gathered the information as a part of the Thompson Institute’s Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study. The goal was to follow changes in adolescents’ brain structure and to see how those changes correlated to their mental health.

The cingulo-opercular network (CON), or the brain’s control network for processing information, gave researchers the insight they were looking for. Finding kids’ unique brain connectomes, which are like fingerprints, helped to tell the story.

Researchers “were able to shine light on how maturing adolescent connectomes are vulnerable to psychological distress,” explains Felice Martin, MS, NCC, LPC, CPCS, Certified Professional Counselor Supervisor, NeuroCoach and NeuroLeader of Behavioral Health Associates of Georgia, LLC.

“The significance of this study creates opportunities for mental health professionals to utilize a tangible asset (brain imaging) when providing mental health support,” she adds.

Zack Shan, PhD

This finding is crucial for youth mental health, as the ability to reliably predict who may develop a mental disorder remains elusive.

— Zack Shan, PhD

The human brain is still developing in a 12-year-old. The brain’s immature state can make it more vulnerable to impulsivity and a lack of emotional control.

Those factors can impact mental health. In fact, studies show that about half of all Americans will deal with a mental health disorder at some point in life, with it beginning in childhood or in that critical period of early adolescence.

The findings of this latest study, published in NeuroImage, have far-reaching implications for helping teens deal with mental health issues.

“This finding is crucial for youth mental health, as the ability to reliably predict who may develop a mental disorder remains elusive,” explains Shan.

CON and Mental Health

CON supports executive functioning in the brain. It impacts memory, the ability to focus, and the ability to do several things at once. CON also deals with mental flexibility and self-regulation.

“The cingulo-opercular network (CON) is one of two brain control networks that determine how different brain components are arranged to function correctly,” says Shan.

“We believe that a less unique CON may represent delayed maturation of CON, resulting in more vulnerability to mental problems.”

Abnormal CON, and potential issues with self-regulation, are noteworthy. Research shows that problems with self-regulation have been linked to mental health issues.

In fact, other studies have shown similar relationships between CON and mental health. An abnormal CON has been associated with schizophrenia as well as mood and behavior disorders.

What Can Parents Do?

Experts say helping kids develop ways to deal with stressors may be a starting point to countering the impact of abnormal brain functioning. Practical opportunities for kids to practice executive skills can play a key part.

Felice Martin, LPC

Creating safe spaces for healing (parent and child) that model self-regulation, assertive communication, and resolving conflict is essential to prevention and change.

— Felice Martin, LPC

“Creating safe spaces for healing (parent and child) that model self-regulation, assertive communication, and resolving conflict is essential to prevention and change,” notes Martin.

With the brain continuing to develop well past 20 years of age, there are chances to learn and grow in those skills.

“Development occurs in stages and is progressive; the unique functional connectome will continue changing,” Martin concludes.

What This Means For You

Children deal with a lot of pressure and potential stressors. Knowing which children may be more likely to have mental health distress can be extremely beneficial for parents and mental health professionals to help kids get the care they need.

The study results give valuable insight into how to tell which kids may need that extra emotional and mental support. Looking into preventative care for kids is essential for maintaining their mental health.

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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