The Amygdala-Prefrontal Cortex Connection is Crucial

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Rasmus Birn, Principal Investigator, Birn Laboratory, University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Ok, so we’re going to run a short localizer scan now…

NARRATOR: Recently new neuro-imaging technology enabled the Wisconsin team to see whether or not parental stress might impact the very architecture of their adolescent children’s brains. The team especially wanted to look at one critical brain circuit—the connection between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala recognizes threat and sounds the alarm. In turn, the prefrontal cortex signals the amygdala whether the alarm is justified.

Cory Burghy, Postdoctoral Fellow in Developmental Neuroscience, University of Wisconsin-Madison:

We want to see a good flow of traffic on that highway because that’s a highway that’s helping that child regulate their emotion on a moment-to-moment basis…how to deal with emotions, when is it appropriate to express emotions, what are good things to feel, what are bad things to feel.

NAR: So, was there a difference in these two parts of the brain in those adolescents who had experienced early-life parental stress?

Cory Burghy:

When we look at it now that they’re 18 years old, we see lower connectivity between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex.

Marilyn Essex, Director, Life Stress and Human Development Lab, University of Wisconsin-Madison:

For the kids with early stress exposure, it was just way out of whack. What we found was a pattern that absolutely fits with the rest of our data.

Cory Burghy:

It was an amazing thing to see and to see such strong associations throughout. And this whole pattern then predicted anxiety in these adolescent girls.

Marilyn Essex:

It really is setting up a system that responds differently to stress in the future.

Cory Burghy:

When we’re stressed out, we’re not taking in as much information; we’re not functioning as well in our daily lives. We might be getting everything done but maybe we’re not learning as well.

Marilyn Essex:

And so it does have an effect on later achievement and academic outcomes. In terms of health and functioning we know that they do worse than kids who are less stressed.