Anxiety Cranks Up Activity in Women's Brains

A woman looks with worry at a computer.
Worry may ramp up activity in the brain, causing burnout. (Image credit: Dmitriy Shironosov, Shutterstock)

Women who worry a lot have brains that work overtime even during easy tasks, new research suggests.

The findings could help in the identification and treatment of anxiety disorders, according to the Michigan State University scientists who conducted the study.

"This may help predict the development of anxiety issues later in life for girls," said Jason Moser, a Michigan State psychologist and the lead author of the study. "It's one more piece of the puzzle for us to figure out why women in general have more anxiety disorders."

Women are twice as likely than men to have anxiety disorders. To find out why, Moser and his colleagues used an electrode cap to measure electrical activity in the brain as 79 female college students and 70 male college students completed an easy task. The volunteers were asked to identify the middle letter in a series of letters. In easy versions, all of the letters were the same ("FFFFF"), and in more difficult versions, the middle letter was different ("EEFEE").

The volunteers also filled out questionnaires about how much they worried.

The data revealed that anxious women had more electrical activity in their brains during the tasks compared with their chill counterparts; anxious men didn't show any excess activity. Even so, on the easy versions of the experiment, worried men and women performed about the same. But as the test got more difficult, these worried women did worse, suggesting that worry got in the way of doing the task well, Moser said in a statement. In men, self-reported worry wasn't linked to busier brains.

"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."

The researchers are now investigating whether the feminizing hormone estrogen is to blame for this overactive brain response. They detailed their results May 29 in the International Journal of Psychophysiology.

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