Scientists have figured out why the brains of anxious girls work much harder than those of boys, a discovery that could spur the identification and treatment of anxiety disorders.
The finding stems from an experiment in which college students performed a relatively simple task while their brain activity was measured by an electrode cap. Only girls who identified themselves as particularly anxious or big worriers recorded high brain activity when they made mistakes during the task.
Jason Moser, lead investigator from the Michigan State University, said the findings may ultimately help mental health professionals determine which girls may be prone to anxiety problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, the International Journal of Psychophysiology reports.
“This may help predict the development of anxiety issues later in life for girls,” said Moser, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State. “It’s one more piece of the puzzle for us to figure out why women in general have more anxiety disorders,” he said.
The study is the first to measure the correlation between worrying and error-related brain responses in the sexes using a scientifically viable sample (79 female students, 70 males), according to a Michigan statement.
Participants were asked to identify the middle letter in a series of five-letter groups on a computer screen. Sometimes the middle letter was the same as the other four (“FFFFF”) while sometimes it was different (“EEFEE”). Afterward they filled out questionnaires about how much they worry.
Although the worrisome female subjects performed about the same as the males on simple portions of the task, their brains had to work harder at it. Then, as the test became more difficult, the anxious females performed worse, suggesting worrying got in the way of completing the task, Moser said.
“Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” Moser said.
“As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school. We already know that anxious kids – and especially anxious girls – have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math,” Moser added.