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The importance of studying mental health disorders in adolescents

The 7th September 2020 marks Youth Mental Health Day. At the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, the Developmental Computational Psychiatry Team, led by Dr Tobias Hauser investigate why most psychiatric disorders arise before adulthood and how this is related to abnormal neurocognitive development.

Research Assistant, Johanna Habicht discusses the importance of studying mental health disorders earlier in life, and shares some of the team’s current work.

Adolescence is an important period for physical, mental, emotional and social development. It is a time when youth seek more independence, discover their own personality, sexual identity and learn the accompanying norms and expectations. Along with those transformations, the brain undergoes fundamental changes. Despite previous beliefs that brain development stops in childhood, we now know that the changes in the brain structure and function take place also during adolescence and reach well into our adulthood.

Adolescence is also a time when we see a sharp rise of mental health problems: three-quarters of mental health disorders arise before mid-20s. To this day, no one knows why most psychiatric disorders arise during adolescence. It can only be assumed that the maturation of the brain and the changes that come along with it are connected to the emergence of psychiatric disorder. Until recent years, there has been a lack of Neuroscience and Psychology research in adolescents because youth was neglected as a period of brain development, and the difficulty doing research with youths has led researchers to study adults instead. So, it is especially important to study adolescent mental health now to figure out why some individuals develop mental health problems during adolescence, whereas others do not. This is exactly what we want to know in the Developmental Computational Psychiatry lab.

In our group, we mainly study how cognition (how we think and decide) changes over childhood and adolescence, and how those changes can result in mental health problems. In other words, we focus on what happens if an adolescent develops differently to their peers, and how such altered cognitive development is linked to the emergence of psychiatric disorders. To investigate this, we use a broad range of methods, including behavioural experiments (playing games), neuroimaging techniques (brain scans) and computational modelling (mathematical models that describe how the brain works). Here are two examples how we have used such techniques in the past and what we have found.

In a recent study, we studied how adolescent brain development was linked to the emergence of mental health problems. We followed over 300 adolescents over several years and repeatedly acquired MRI scans (pictures of the brain) from them. We used a specific marker that shows myelination. Myelination is the insulation of brain connections that helps information in the brain to travel faster and is very important for brain functioning. We found that this brain matter undergoes widespread reorganisation during adolescence. To look at how this may be related to emergence of mental health problems, we investigated two psychiatric traits: compulsivity and impulsivity. These are common traits in mental health disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When looking at individuals who scored high on impulsivity and compulsivity spectrum, we found that they had less ongoing myelination (less new insulation) in the prefrontal brain areas, which are areas highly involved in cognition and decision making. This study thus highlighted the importance of brain myelin in the development of mental health problems.

(More information about the study can be found here).

Another approach that we use in our lab is computational modelling. This means that we use mathematical models (similar to the ones used to train robots) to understand how the brain processes information. We develop novel games that allow us to examine how we make decisions. For example, we use a game that reveals how people gather new information and when they decide they know enough to make a decision. We tested adolescents who were diagnosed with OCD and compared their decision making to healthy youths. We found that adolescents with OCD required more information before they make a decision compared to healthy individuals at the same age. This study showed that altered cognition and decision making are linked to mental health problems in adolescents using computational modelling.

(More information about the study can be found here).

In the last few decades it has been accepted that adolescence is a period when our brains grow rapidly, and we have understood that most of mental health problems arise during that time. However, we still have a long way to go in finding out why psychiatric disorders arise during adolescence, and how we may be able to prevent or alleviate them. This is what our group and many others are trying to understand, and if you would like to be part of our research, please follow the links below to find out how you can participate.

If you would like to know more about our group and our work, please have a look at our website and if you would like to participate in our research, please follow this link.

Johanna Habicht 2020