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Gene Dysfunction Linked to Adolescent Behavioral Problems

Update Date: Dec 17, 2013 10:02 AM EST

During the teenage years, adolescents' behaviors often appear to change. Young and sweet children start to become moody teenagers. During this new time in life, they also become more vulnerable to mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, depression and substance abuse or addiction. In a new study, researchers identified a "teen gene" that could be responsible for these teenage behavioral problems.

For this study, the researcher from the Douglas Institute Research Center, which is affiliated with McGill University, were able to identify a gene called DCC. DCC is in charge of dopamine connectivity in the brain's medial prefrontal cortex during adolescence. The researchers then used mice models and found that when DCC did not function properly, behavioral consequences occurred and could last through to adulthood.

"Certain psychiatric disorders can be related to alterations in the function of the prefrontal cortex and to changes in the activity of the brain chemical dopamine," said Cecilia Flores, senior author on the study and professor at McGill's Department of Psychiatry, "Prefrontal cortex wiring continues to develop into early adulthood, although the mechanisms were, until now, entirely unknown."

The researchers also examined the DDC expression in the brains of people who had killed themselves. The postmortem brains revealed 48 percent higher levels of DDC expression. The researchers believe that during one's adolescent years, this region of the brain can be greatly affected. The researchers explained that the prefrontal cortex is tied to judgment, decision-making and mental flexibility. When this region is introduced to stress or drugs, teenagers could suffer long-term mental health consequences.

"We know that the DCC gene can be altered by experiences during adolescence," said Dr. Flores. "This already gives us hope, because therapy, including social support, is itself a type of experience which might modify the function of the DCC gene during this critical time and perhaps reduce vulnerability to an illness."

The study was published in Translational Psychiatry.

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