BACKGROUND: Adolescence is a transition period from childhood to adulthood that is often characterized by emotional instability. This period is also a time of increased incidence of anxiety and depression, underscoring the importance of understanding biological substrates of behavioral and emotion regulation during adolescence. Developmental changes in the brain in concert with individual predispositions for anxiety might underlie the increased risk for poor outcomes reported during adolescence. We tested the hypothesis that difficulties in regulating behavior in emotional contexts in adolescents might be due to competition between heightened activity in subcortical emotional processing systems and immature top-down prefrontal systems. Individual differences in emotional reactivity might put some teens at greater risk during this sensitive transition in development.
METHODS: We examined the association between emotion regulation and frontoamygdala circuitry in 60 children, adolescents, and adults with an emotional go-nogo paradigm. We went beyond examining the magnitude of neural activity and focused on neural adaptation within this circuitry across time with functional magnetic resonance imaging.
RESULTS: Adolescents showed exaggerated amygdala activity relative to children and adults. This age-related difference decreased with repeated exposures to the stimuli, and individual differences in self-ratings of anxiety predicted the extent of adaptation or habituation in amygdala. Individuals with higher trait anxiety showed less habituation over repeated exposures. This failure to habituate was associated with less functional connectivity between ventral prefrontal cortex and amygdala.
CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that exaggerated emotional reactivity during adolescence might increase the need for top-down control and put individuals with less control at greater risk for poor outcomes