Mental Health

Researchers Discover The Surprising No. 1 Predictor of Mental Illness

31020940_sMental illness is still in large part a mystery and very little has been done to figure out what causes it or who may be more susceptible. Now, new research may be taking us one step closer to assessing the origins of this debilitating disease and opening new doors to the prevention of it.

Recently, scientists from the Washington University of St. Louis ran a 12 year long study of 145 preschool age children. These children were assessed for feelings of guilt and depression through the ages of 3-6. Later, during their 7th to 13th years, these same children were given fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans every year and a half. Although the initial findings of this study has already been published, these children will continued to be studied for the next 5 years.

The study concluded an interesting and intricate relationship between feelings of guilt, depression and future mental illness. 47 of the 145 preschoolers were found to have feelings of depression. Of these 47 children, over half of them showed feelings of pathological guilt. On the other hand, of the non depressed children, only 20% of them displayed guilt.

The rather shocking discovery was that the children who dealt with guilt, whether or not they also had depression, had a smaller volume in their anterior insula – the part of the brain that has been connected to mental illness such as schizophrenia and mood and anxiety disorders. The anterior insula is also responsible for the regulation of emotion and self perception. Small anterior insula volume is already known as an indicator of later occurring depression. Accordingly, the children with the smaller anterior insula volume were also more likely to have recurring episodes of depression in their future.

This study is the first of its kind to link childhood guilt to actual changes in brain matter. What is exciting about this research is that it shows that with early intervention, it might be possible to stave off mental illness in a person’s future. This research promises to develop some crucial tools for assessing children at risk and empowering their caretakers to recognize early symptoms and take steps to change their life.

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