May 16, 2023; Unhurry Expert Research Team
In This Article
Problems with the brain’s ability to ‘prune’ itself of unnecessary connections may underlie a wide range of mental health disorders that begin during adolescence, according to research published today.
The findings of this research by the University of Cambridge may help explain why people are often affected by more than one mental health disorder and may help identify those at greatest risk in the future.
The research is an international collaboration led by researchers in the UK, China, and Germany.
Which mental health disorders emerge during adolescence?
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), one in seven adolescents (aged 10-19 years old) worldwide, experiences mental health disorders.
One in seven adolescents (aged 10-19 years old) worldwide experiences mental health disorders, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The leading causes of illness and disability among young people are depression, anxiety, and behavioural disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Moreover, adolescents will commonly have more than one mental health disorder.
What is ‘internalising’ and ‘externalising’ symptoms?
Many mental health problems emerge during adolescence. Among these are disorders such as depression and anxiety, which manifest as ‘internalising’ symptoms, including low mood and worry.
Other conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) manifest as ‘externalising’ symptoms, such as impulsive behaviour.
“Young people often experience multiple mental health disorders, beginning in adolescence and continuing — and often transforming — into adult life. This suggests that there’s a common brain mechanism that could explain the onset of these mental health disorders during this critical time of brain development,” explained Professor Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge.
What is this pattern of brain activity among adolescents called?
The researchers in a study published in Nature Medicine, say they have identified a characteristic pattern of brain activity among these adolescents, which they have termed the ‘neuropsychopathological factor’, or NP factor for short.
The team examined data from 1,750 adolescents, aged 14 years, from the IMAGEN cohort, a European research project examining how biological, psychological, and environmental factors during adolescence may influence brain development and mental health.
They specifically looked for patterns of brain connectivity—or, more specifically, how various brain regions communicate with one another—using imaging data from brain scans performed during cognitive tasks.
What is the pattern of brain activity in adolescents with mental health issues?
Regardless of whether their condition had internalising or externalising symptoms, or if they had numerous disorders, adolescents with mental health issues displayed similar patterns of brain activity.
These patterns — the NP factor — were largely apparent in the frontal lobes, the area at the front of the brain responsible for executive function which, among other functions, controls flexible thinking, self-control, and emotional behaviour.
These NP factor components were most pronounced in the frontal lobes, the region of the brain that regulates the executive function and performs a variety of tasks like flexible thinking, self-control of behaviour, and emotion regulation.
The researchers confirmed their findings by replicating them on 1,799 participants from the ABCD Study in the USA, a long-term study of brain development and child health, and by studying patients who had received psychiatric diagnoses.
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What is the link between synaptic pruning and mental health disorders?
The NP factor was found to be highest among those who carried a specific mutation of the gene IGSF11, which has previously been linked to several mental health issues when the scientists examined genetic data from the IMAGEN cohort.
This gene is known to play an important role in synaptic pruning, a process whereby unnecessary brain connections — synapses — are discarded. Problems with pruning may particularly affect the frontal lobes since these regions are the last brain areas to complete development in adolescents and young adults.
What is synaptic pruning?
Synaptic pruning is a natural process that occurs in the brain between early childhood and adulthood. During synaptic pruning, the brain eliminates extra synapses. Synapses are brain structures that allow the neurons to transmit an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron.
Synaptic pruning is thought to be the brain’s way of removing connections in the brain that are no longer needed. Researchers have recently learned that the brain is more “plastic” and mouldable than previously thought. Synaptic pruning is our body’s way of maintaining more efficient brain function as we get older and learn new complex information.
Synaptic pruning is important in keeping the brain efficient
Dr Tianye Jia from the Institute of Science and Technology for Brain-Inspired Intelligence, Fudan University, Shanghai, China, and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, London, UK said: “As we grow up, our brains make more and more connections. This is a normal part of our development. But too many connections risk making the brain inefficient. Synaptic pruning helps ensure that brain activity doesn’t get drowned out in ‘white noise’.
“Our research suggests that when this important pruning process is disrupted, it affects how brain regions talk to each other. As this impact is seen most in the frontal lobes, this then has implications for mental health,” says the research.
NP factor can help identify mental health disorders
The researchers say that the discovery of the NP factor could help identify those young people at greatest risk of compounding mental health problems.
“We know that many mental health disorders begin in adolescence and that individuals who develop one disorder are at increased risk of developing other disorders, too. By examining brain activity and looking for this NP factor, we might be able to detect those at greatest risk sooner, offering us more opportunity to intervene and reduce this risk,” said Professor Jianfeng Feng from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and the University of Warwick, UK.
Funders for the Research included: the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the European Union, the National Institute for Health & Care Research (UK), and National Institutes of Health (NIH, USA).*
Materials provided by the University of Cambridge. The original text of this story is licensed under a Creative Commons License; www. healthline.com Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Chao Xie, Shitong Xiang, Chun Shen, Xuerui Peng, Jujiao Kang, Yuzhu Li, Wei Cheng, Shiqi He, Tobias Banaschewski, Gareth J. Barker, Arun L. W. Bokde, Uli Bromberg, Christian Büchel, Sylvane Desrivières, Herta Flor, Antoine Grigis, Hugh Garavan, Penny Gowland, Andreas Heinz, Bernd Ittermann, Jean-Luc Martinot, Marie-Laure Paillère Martinot, Frauke Nees, Dimitri Papadopoulos Orfanos, Tomáš Paus, Luise Poustka, Juliane H. Fröhner, Michael N. Smolka, Henrik Walter, Robert Whelan, Barbara J. Sahakian, Trevor W. Robbins, Gunter Schumann, Tianye Jia, Jianfeng Feng. A shared neural basis underlying psychiatric comorbidity. Nature Medicine, 2023; DOI: 10.1038/s41591-023-02317-4
The University of Cambridge. “Problems with ‘pruning’ brain connections linked to adolescent mental health disorders.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 April 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/04/230424133602.htm>.
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