Intense childhood anxiety may lead to psychosis during adulthood

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — Children and young teens who constantly experience high levels of anxiety are more likely to develop psychosis by their early 20s, according to researchers from the University of Birmingham. On a more positive note, their study also finds intervening early in an individual’s life — by targeting stress hormones and non-resolving inflammation — can reduce the risk of becoming psychotic at an older age.

Study authors set out to uncover any links between constant anxiety in childhood and adolescence and having psychotic experiences (PE) or a psychotic disorder (PD) by the age of 24. Thanks to data provided by the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), researchers were able to analyze 3,889 children. Each child underwent a mental health assessment at eight, 10, 13 and 24 years of age.

That analysis led to the conclusion that persistent anxiety as a child makes an individual more likely to develop PEs and PDs by age 24.

“Persistent high levels of anxiety in childhood and adolescence are linked to subsequent psychosis, but we may be able to prevent psychosis by targeting and treating early anxiety,” says lead study author Isabel Morales-Muñoz, from Birmingham’s Institute for Mental Health, in a media release. “Early diagnosis and management of adolescent anxiety and possibly novel treatments targeted at inflammation could be key actions to unlock treatment strategies that reduce the risk of children and adolescents going on to develop psychosis.”

Psychotic disorders are more common than many may realize

For instance, PDs are among the top causes of disability and affect 31 percent of people in the United Kingdom alone. Prior research indicates that various genetic and environmental factors, such as deprivation, childhood trauma, and minority status, may influence PD development. Moreover, while many who become psychotic display socio-emotional and behavioral problems as a child, scientists have not examined the role childhood anxiety plays in this very thoroughly.

“Childhood and adolescence is the core risk phase for developing anxiety disorders which become risk factors for general mental disorders in adulthood,” adds senior study author Rachel Upthegrove. “We identified a group of children and adolescents who experience persistent and high anxiety levels, and these could be the individuals at higher risk for later mental disorders, including psychosis.”

Psychotic experiences are generally more common than psychotic disorders. Interestingly, the study finds childhood anxiety has a stronger connection to PDs than PEs. This finding, study authors explain, suggests constant childhood anxiety is likely a better predictor of a future formal psychotic disorder than a psychotic experience. PEs are believed to correlate with a more diverse range of potential risk factors in young adulthood, such as sex and drug use.

The team published their findings in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

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John Anderer

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