Stress, anxiety, the need to relax—all of these bring clients to massage therapy. As researchers increasingly look at the effects of stress on children and adolescents, in its clear that stress is not limited to adults.

High levels of family stress in infancy are linked to differences in everyday brain function and anxiety in teenage girls, according to new results of a long-running population study by University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists.

The study highlights evidence for a developmental pathway through which early life stress may drive these changes.

The researches found that female babies who lived in homes with stressed mothers were more likely to grow into preschoolers with higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. In addition, girls with higher cortisol also showed less communication between brain areas associated with emotion regulation 14 years later. Last, both high cortisol and differences in brain activity predicted higher levels of adolescent anxiety at age 18.

The young men in the study did not show any of these patterns.

“Now that we are showing that early life stress and cortisol affect brain development,” said Marilyn Essex, Ph.D., a University of Wisconsin professor of psychiatry “it raises important questions about what we can do to better support young parents and families.”

The study was published in Nature Neuroscience.

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