High Levels of Childhood Guilt Linked To Mental Illness and Brain Changes

Sad ChildExcessive guilt has a well-documented link to adult depression, but new findings published in JAMA Psychiatry suggest issues with excessive guilt in adolescence may indicate a higher risk for future mental illness, including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and bipolar disorder.

According to the report, the connection between guilt and future mental illness is caused by the anterior insula, a region of the brain responsible for the regulation of perception, emotion, and self-awareness.

The anterior insula has already been connected with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, depression and schizophrenia, but the new research also finds children who exhibited signs of pathological guilt showed less volume in the anterior insula. These children were also statistically more likely to become depressed compared to other children.

The researchers, from the Washington University of St. Louis, conducted a 12-year longitudinal study of 145 children who were preschool-age at the onset of the study. When the participating children were between the ages of three and six, they were assessed for depression and guilt. Then, between the ages of seven and 13, the children were given fMRI brain scans every 18 months. The study is intended to be continued at least another five years.

The findings from the study showed more than half of the 47 preschoolers eventually diagnosed with depression showed signs of pathological guilt at early ages, compared to 20 percent of the non-depressed children. The researchers also saw that children with high levels of guilt had smaller anterior insula volume, even when they were not diagnosed with depression. Children with less insula volume in the right hemisphere of the brain were especially likely to experience recurring episodes of clinical depression as they age.

According to The Huffington Post, this study marks the first to associate childhood guilt with observable physical changes in the brain. However, the findings are unable to establish causality. It is possible childhood guilt may contribute to the changes in the brain, or that children predisposed to depression are also likely to experience pathological guilt.

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