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How you perceive fearful faces can reveal stress levels

New York, Feb 5
How people respond to angry or fearful faces may reveal their vulnerability to stress, researchers from North Carolina-based Duke University have found.

They reported a correlation between how a college student's brain responds to photos of angry or fearful faces and their ability to recover from break-ups or financial emergencies months or years in the future.

When shown the triggering photos, participants whose scans recorded higher activity in their amygdala - integrative centre for emotions and motivation - went on to assess themselves as more prone to depression or anxiety after stressful events during follow-up surveys.

"We found that stronger responses of the amygdala predict greater symptoms of depression and anxiety in response to stress as much as one to four years in the future," said lead study author Johnna Swartz, psychology and neuroscience post-doctoral associate at the Duke University.

The investigators measured amygdala activity in 750 college students aged 18 to 22 years, all of whom said they were free of depression or anxiety disorders at the start of the study.

After the imaging scans, all participants were contacted by e-mail every three months and invited to complete a short online survey of their current mood and experience of stressful life events.

About 350 students filled out a follow-up survey; of these, more than half completed an assessment at least one year after scanning.

Scientists now have a new strategy to predict whether individuals are at an increased risk for depression or anxiety after stressful events, and, therefore, might benefit from interventions aimed at safeguarding their mental health.

In addition to identifying a risk marker for developing future mental health symptoms, the results suggest that finding therapies or drugs that decrease the activity of the amygdala may be most effective for preventing or alleviating stress-related depression and anxiety.

The study appeared in the Cell Press journal Neuron.