CHAMPAIGN, III — Size matters, when it comes to your brain and anxiety. A new study finds that when the area of the brain behind the temples known for regulating emotions is smaller than normal, individuals are more likely to feel anxious and see things in a negative light more frequently.
Researchers at the University of Illinois evaluated 62 healthy students for the study. Anxiety tends to be quite prevalent on American college campuses, with nearly 60% of college students reporting at least one bout of anxiety each year, according to the American College Health Association.
The researchers used neuroimaging scans to collect brain structural data, and questionnaires to find their levels of anxiety and assess their negative bias. Ultimately, the team found that healthy college students with a slightly smaller inferior frontal cortex (IFC) are more likely to experience anxiety.
“You would expect these brain changes more in clinical populations where anxiety is very serious, but we are seeing differences even in the brains of healthy young adults,” says study co-author Dr. Sanda Dolcos, a psychology professor at the school, in a media release.
Correlations between IFC size and anxiety had already been found, but new findings by Dolcos and graduate student Yifan Hu, who co-authored the study with her, was the first to correlate IFC size and anxiety in healthy adults who have not been diagnosed with anxiety disorders.
They also found that the relationship between IFC size and a student’s predilection for negative bias is mediated by their anxiety levels.
“We found that larger IFC volume is protecting against negative bias through lower levels of trait anxiety,” explains Hu.
Looking ahead to the future, Dolcos and Hu believe that determining how brain structure, function, and personality traits affect sometimes-crippling anxiety will help scientists develop possible interventions targeting specific brain regions in healthy populations.
“We hope to be able to train the brain to function better,” adds Hu. “That way, we might prevent these at-risk people from moving on to more severe anxiety.”
The research study was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.