Emory Report
June 11, 2007
Volume 59, Number 32

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June 11, 2007
Teen brain and mental illness focus of book edited by Emory expert

by carol clark

A new book co-edited by Emory researcher Elaine Walker adds to the growing body of evidence about how nature and nurture work in concert to shape the brain of a teenager into that of a mature adult. The volume also examines the questions of why the risk for major mental illness rises dramatically in adolescence and what interventions or life experiences might prevent these disorders.

“This book reflects the growing recognition during the past 10 years of the importance of adolescent brain development,” said Walker, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience. “The brain of an individual when they are 11 is very different from the brain of that same individual when they’re 21.”

“Adolescent Psycho-pathology and the Developing Brain: Integrating Brain and Prevention Science,” published by Oxford University Press, was edited by Walker and Daniel Romer, research director of the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The book drew from presentations at an Annenberg Center conference in 2005, which brought together some of the most well-known researchers in adolescent neuroscience and psychology to compare notes across disciplines.

Research led by Walker at Emory since 1995 has found that adolescents who carry the highest levels of the stress hormone cortisol appear to be more at risk to develop serious mental illnesses in adulthood. She is continuing to look deeper into the interaction of both stress and sex hormones to pinpoint their influences on brain development and mental health.

Adolescence is characterized by an increase in risk-taking behavior. One theory to explain this behavior is that the brain circuitry for pleasure and sensation develops rapidly during adolescence, while the brain circuitry responsible for behavioral control and inhibition lags behind.

“The take-home message is that the changes you see in the behavior of your adolescent aren’t just a function of their idiosyncrasies and temperament. They reflect actual biological changes in their brains,” Walker said.
In a small percentage of teenagers, these changes in behavior go beyond the normal range and develop into chronic mental illness.

“It appears that individuals that have a certain allele for the gene that controls serotonin transport may be at particular risk for developing depression when they’re exposed to stress,” Walker said. “That’s just one example of a genotype that has been identified that may raise the risk for mental illness during adolescence. There are probably many more.”

Walker and her research team are part of a national consortium slated to begin a series of studies, supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, aimed at developing more precise tools to identify young people at risk for mental illness.

“By better identifying those at risk, we hope to have a better chance of preventing psychotic disorders from ever occurring,” Walker said.