There is an abundance of research that demonstrates a clear link between childhood trauma and adult depression and anxiety. There are also many studies that show a relationship between adolescent and young adult stress and later psychological problems. The existing research on adolescent stress and future mental health challenges is broad but limited because of its retrospective nature. Human stress is usually classified as either abuse or trauma, and because of its sporadic and often brief nature it is difficult to measure accurately. Therefore, to draw a clearer picture of how the timing of stress affects adult mental health, Meaghan M. Wilkin of the Department of Psychology at Queen’s University in Ontario conducted a simulated stress test on 76 three-week-old rats.
Wilkin applied three stressful stimuli to the rats at both early adolescence and mid-adolescence to determine if the psychological outcome in adulthood would vary based on when the stress occurred. After 12 days of stimuli, the rats were evaluated for depressive and anxious behaviors. Wilkin discovered that the rats who were exposed to stressful stimuli in early adolescence exhibited higher levels of anxiety and depression. Additionally, the male rats that received early adolescent stimuli were more likely to avoid risk taking behavior later on. This effect was reversed in the rats that were exposed to midadolescent stress. However, depressive behaviors were evident in all the rats, regardless of when they experienced stress.
These findings shed new light on the long-term effects of stress experienced during childhood and adolescence. Overall, the earlier the stress occurs the broader the effect, specifically for the male rats tested here. These results may prove valuable to researchers exploring the influence of age of onset, gender, and type of stress in future studies aimed at addressing risk factors related to adult depression and anxiety. Wilkin added, “Future work is needed to uncover the underlying neurobiological mechanisms responsible for the differential outcomes of early and midadolescence stress.”
Wilkin, M. M., Menard, J. L., Waters, P., McCormick, C. M. (2012). Intermittent physical stress during early- and mid-adolescence differentially alters rats’ anxiety- and depression-like behaviors in adulthood. Behavioral Neuroscience, 126.2, 344-360.
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