In a recently published study, done at the University of New England, researchers found a link between babies who were admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and them having future anxiety disorders.
Published in eNeuro, the study found that babies in the NICU are subjected to stressors that babies who aren't placed in the NICU don't typically experience, at least to the same extent. Typical procedures that are done in the NICU to save a baby's life or to help him/her develop properly are oftentimes uncomfortable, or even painful, for the baby. Given a lot of these procedures are relatively quick and regular, pain medication is typically not administered during or after.
When the baby is subjected to repeated painful or stressful procedures, their brains are regularly releasing stress hormones to help cope with the trauma. Michael Burman Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology, analyzed the brains of babies in the NICU with the help of his research team and found the babies were producing higher levels of stress hormones than their non-NICU counterparts.
Looking into a neurotransmitter called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), the research team was able to make a connection between the excessive expression of this hormone and behavioural consequences. CRH is expressed in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotional responses. When the babies underwent painful procedures with no means of alleviating the pain, CRH levels rose. The more times the babies had CRH increases, the higher their likelihood of developing anxious behaviours, even later into childhood, became.
Being the first study to suggest a link between CRH release and juvenile anxiety disorders in NICU babies, more research still needs to be done. Burman explains that now that his team found a connection between CRH release and the development of anxiety for NICU babies, more can be done to help alleviate the stress in hopes that the prevalence of anxiety disorders will decrease.
Burman continues to explain that now that they have some understanding as to why anxiety disorders are more common in children who stayed in the NICU, it will be easier to develop treatments for those children already subjected to the stress.