Brain structure and internalizing and externalizing behavior in typically developing children and adolescents

Abstract

Mental health problems often emerge in adolescence and are associated with reduced gray matter thickness or volume in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and limbic system and reduced fractional anisotropy (FA) and increased mean diffusivity (MD) of white matter linking these regions. However, few studies have investigated whether internalizing and externalizing behavior are associated with brain structure in children and adolescents without mental health disorders, which is important for understanding the progression of symptoms. 67 T1-weighted and diffusion tensor imaging datasets were obtained from 48 typically developing participants aged 6–16 years (37M/30F; 19 participants had two visits). Volume was calculated in the prefrontal and limbic structures, and diffusion parameters were assessed in limbic white matter. Linear mixed effects models were used to compute associations between brain structure and internalizing and externalizing behavior, assessed using the Behavioral Assessment System for Children (BASC-2) Parent Rating Scale. Internalizing behavior was positively associated with MD of the bilateral cingulum. Gender interactions were found in the cingulum, with stronger positive relationships between MD and internalizing behavior in females. Externalizing behavior was negatively associated with FA of the left cingulum, and the left uncinate fasciculus showed an age–behavior interaction. No relationships between behavior and brain volumes survived multiple comparison correction. These results show altered limbic white matter FA and MD related to sub-clinical internalizing and externalizing behavior and further our understanding of neurological markers that may underlie risk for future mental health disorders.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) (CL), NSERC CREATE International and Industrial Imaging Training (I3T) Program, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) Graduate Scholarship (QA).

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Correspondence to Catherine Lebel.

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CL’s spouse is an employee of General Electric Healthcare. The authors report no other biomedical financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.

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Andre, Q.R., Geeraert, B.L. & Lebel, C. Brain structure and internalizing and externalizing behavior in typically developing children and adolescents. Brain Struct Funct 225, 1369–1378 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-019-01973-y

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Keywords

  • Structural magnetic resonance imaging
  • Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI)
  • Mental health
  • Internalizing
  • Externalizing
  • Pediatric neuroimaging