Teenage girls with severe antisocial behaviour display reduced brain activity and weaker connectivity between the brain regions implicated in emotion regulation, according to a new study involving researchers from the University's Department of Psychology.
The findings, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, offer a neurobiological explanation for the difficulties some girls have in controlling their emotions, and provide indications for possible therapy approaches.
Becoming a teenager means going through a variety of physical and behavioral changes in the context of puberty and heightened emotions. For everyday social functioning, as well as for personal physical and mental well-being, it is important that teenagers are able to recognise, process and control these emotions.
But for young people diagnosed with conduct disorder, this process is difficult, and can lead to antisocial or aggressive reactions that lie outside age-appropriate norms. Characteristics of conduct disorder include getting into physical fights, bullying, stealing and lying.
With this new study the international team of researchers from Bath, with colleagues in Switzerland and Germany have been able to demonstrate using functional magnetic resonance imaging that these behavioral difficulties are reflected in the brain activity.
The latest study involved almost 60 female teenagers aged between 15 and 18 who were asked to try to actively regulate their emotions while the researchers measured their brain activity. Half of the group had previously been diagnosed with conduct disorder, while the other half showed typical social development for their age. In the girls with conduct disorder, less activity was seen in the prefrontal and temporal cortex. These brain regions are involved in cognitive and emotional control processes.
“Our results offer the first neural explanation for deficits in emotion regulation in teenage girls with conduct disoder” says first author Professor Nora Raschle of the University of Zurich.
“The difference in the neural activities between the two test groups could indicate fundamental differences in emotion regulation. However, it could also be due to delayed brain development in participants with conduct disorders.”
Indications for therapy
Treatment for young people diagnosed with conduct disorders may target several levels.
Dr Graeme Fairchild from Bath's Department of Psychology explains: "Even though conduct disorder is less common in girls than boys, it still affects around 2% of school-aged girls and is one of the most common reasons for referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in the UK. This new study shows that teenage girls with conduct disorder find it harder to regulate their emotions - especially negative emotions.
"We also found that parts of the brain which are involved in emotional control were less active and less well connected with each other in the girls with conduct disorder compared to the typically-developing girls. In future work, we will investigate whether these emotion regulation problems can be reversed and the impact of this psychological therapy on brain activity during emotion regulation."
It has not yet been investigated whether male teenagers with conduct disorder show similar brain activity during emotion regulation. According to the authors, there are several indicators that the neural characteristics of conduct disorders may be sex-specific.
Notes on the study
- The study 'Atypical dorsolateral prefrontal activity in females with conduct disorder during effortful emotion regulation' is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2451902219301314?via%3Dihub;
- DOI: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2019.05.003