Dr. Katie McLaughlin: Understanding How Stress Causes Anxiety and Depression in Youth

Dr. McLaughlin

Dr. McLaughlin will use brain imaging and smartphone-enabled technologies to investigate the biology of how stress can lead to anxiety and depression in youth.

The years of adolescence tend to present many chronic and acute stressful events. Not coincidentally, more than 1 in 5 youth age 9 to 17 suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition. Extensive research shows that anxiety and depression, at any age, are strongly associated with exposure to stressful life events (SLEs). However, very little is known about the specific brain mechanisms underlying this connection.

AIM for Mental Health and IMHRO (One Mind Institute) are thrilled to announce the selection of our 2015 IMHRO/AIM Rising Star Research Award winner. Katie McLaughlin, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at University of Washington. McLaughlin’s proposal, “Neural Mechanisms of Stress Vulnerability Underlying Anxiety and Depression in Youth”, offers a brilliantly direct and original approach to understanding the biology linking the stress of adolescent life with the development of anxiety and depression.

One critical challenge not met by previous studies has been in monitoring participants with sufficient frequency to document the neural changes associated with SLEs. This challenge arises from the fact that changes in the brain that, in turn, influence emotion and behavior unfold quickly following stressful events. McLaughlin explains that “even the most rigorous studies…usually involve assessments separated in time by several years. I propose to overcome this limitation by conducting repeated monthly assessment of SLEs, psychopathology, and neural processes paired with daily non-intrusive monitoring of activity, sleep, physiological fluctuations, and social behavior facilitated by advances in mobile computing that addresses these fundamental limitations in existing methods.”

The monthly assessments conducted by Dr. McLaughlin’s lab will include fMRI tests to measure emotional processing and interviews to measure symptoms of anxiety and depression and SLE exposure. Daily assessments monitoring stress-related physiology and social behavior will also be collected using smartphone and wearable technology. These finely granular methods of assessment could provide the key to identifying markers of adolescent anxiety and depression early enough to prevent the onset of anxiety and mood disorders.

Dr. McLaughlin’s research will tackle 3 separate aims:

  1. Identify and track how stressful life events change the neurobiology underlying how young people respond emotionally to their environment. McLaughlin predicts that after SLEs, adolescents will assign greater salience to negative emotional stimuli, reflected in heightened response to these cues in the brain’s fear circuits, and reduced pleasure from positive stimuli, reflected in blunted response to positive cues in the brain’s reward circuits. She also predicts that adolescents’ neural circuits regulating positive and negative emotions will be weakened.
  2. Test whether these stress-induced neurobiological changes are mediated by daily variations in physical activity, sleep, social behavior and physiological markers of arousal. She predicts that adolescents will experience reduced sleep duration and quality, reduced social engagement (as seen through reduced frequency of phone and text use), reduced physical activity (tracked by steps), and reduced heart period variability and elevated sympathetic tone, which will mediate changes in brain function following SLEs.
  3. Identify whether the stress-induced changes in neurobiology examined in Aim 1 predict symptoms of anxiety and depression. By correlating fluctuations in neural markers with changes in symptoms monthly, this connection will become clear.

Because of Dr. McLaughlin’s groundbreaking research, future generations could live more empowered lives from their teen years onward.