Preschool and school-age irritability predict reward-related brain function

Preschool irritability and concurrent irritability were uniquely associated with aberrant patterns of reward-related brain connectivity, highlighting the importance of developmental timing of irritability for brain function, finds a study published in the June 2018 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP).

“Irritability is one of the most frequent reasons for treatment referral and is present across multiple emotional and behavioral disorders,” said lead author Lea Dougherty, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of Maryland College Park. “Chronic irritability in school-age children and adolescents predicts depressive and anxiety disorders, suicidality, and functional impairment in adulthood. Despite its prevalence and central role in developmental psychopathology, the pathophysiology of irritability is largely unknown.

“These findings provide some insight into the neural circuitry underlying irritability and is a step toward uncovering biomarkers for early identification and treatment of youth irritability,” Dr. Dougherty added.

The findings were based on a subset of children recruited for a longitudinal study examining early risk for depression. Children’s irritability was assessed during the preschool period (ages 3.0-5.9 years) and three years later (ages 5.9-9.6 years). At the follow-up assessment, 46 children (28 females) performed monetary incentive delay tasks in which they either received rewards if they successfully hit a target, or no reward regardless of performance, while being scanned with fMRI imaging.

The research team found that children who had more severe preschool irritability, controlling for concurrent irritability, exhibited altered reward-related connectivity: right amygdala with insula and inferior parietal lobe as well as left ventral striatum with lingual gyrus, post-central gyrus, superior parietal lobe and culmen.

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