Are Some Kids More Biologically Susceptible To Mental Health Difficulties?

Photo by Léa Jones

What if we could predict mental illness during childhood—and nip it in the bud?

According to the World Health Organization, 450 million people around the world are struggling with either a mental illness or neurological disorder at this very moment. Of the 9.8 million struggling in the United States alone, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports 50 percent of all lifetime cases begin by age 14. The statistics truly are enough to take your breath away.

While it's true that mental illness can be a result of early trauma and circumstances, studies continue to surface that prove some kids are more biologically susceptible to mental health difficulties than others. The latest: A collection of new research presented at Neuroscience 2018, an annual meeting conducted by the Society for Neuroscience, has uncovered genetic variations in the brain that can affect a child's or teenager's susceptibility to mental health and substance abuse issues. These findings suggest it may be possible to predict adolescent vulnerability to addiction and psychiatric issues like depression and anxiety.

The first revelation focused on opioid receptors, which are protein molecules that send signals to the brain that the body should produce pain blockers, inducing a calming effect. Everyone's body naturally produces opioid receptors, but the new research has found that some adolescents contain a specific variant in their opioid genes that affects the brain's mesolimbic dopamine system, which controls the reward response that encourages pleasure. This variation reduces the natural positive reward response to alcohol and drugs before a young person has even tried them. According to the authors' analysis, that means those with this genetic variation are more likely to develop an addiction in order to reach that level of pleasure.

Another finding observed that a weak connection between the brain's reward and anti-reward channels corresponds to more severe symptoms of anxiety and depression in adolescents. And a third study found childhood trauma also interfered with critical developments of the brain and thus played a key role in increasing one's susceptibility to substance abuse and poor mental health.

More studies need to be done to understand how to take these biological observations and turn them into accurate predictors of mental illness that can be used by health professionals working with kids. But experts in the space are hopeful and working hard to make preventive mental health care a reality in the near future: For instance, MQ, a mental health research charity in the United Kingdom, is currently funding various studies in which scientists are identifying ways to spot circuitry patterns in the brain specific to schizophrenia, how bullying affects DNA, and abnormal brain signals that trigger repetition in OCD patients.

The hope is that one day parents and their family doctors together might be able to intervene in order to prevent these difficulties before symptoms even have a chance to surface. We at mbg will be keeping an eye on how this promising area of research develops. In the meantime, if you're worried about your child's mental health, start making the development of emotional literacy an important family practice, and do not be afraid to seek out professional support if needed.

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