For a while now we have known than being shy and withdrawn as a child can lead to being anxious as a teenager and adult. Having said this, the majority of shy children do not develop a serious anxiety problem as adolescents or adults.
What is behavioural inhibition?
Koraly Perez-Edgar and her colleagues write this month in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience about their research into this. They looked into the relation between being shy and withdrawn as a child---they call it 'behavioural inhibition', but there is a bit more to it than shyness---and having an anxiety problem as a teenager. To do that they used two cutting-edge techniques: genetics and our old friend fMRI.
In which we wait for children to grow up while we fire up the fMRI
In a nutshell they recruited a number of shy and withdrawn children and they waited until they were teenagers. They tested them for a particular genetic trait that can change how anxious we get when we there are potential rewards or losses. Some of the teenagers had the genes and some did not. They put them all in an fMRI machine. Not happy with doing just that they got them to play a game where they could make money or lose money depending on how they did on a quiz. They then looked at the bits of the brain that light up with anxiety and rewards.
After much number-crunching they confirmed that teenagers with the genetic trait had higher activation in the anxiety areas of the brain even when faced with small stakes. Once this was clear they looked at who within the group had more anxiety in their everyday life. It turned out that those with the genetic trait and the excessive activity on fMRI where the most likely to suffer from anxiety according to their parents.
But, what does it all mean?
So we know a bit more about how anxiety might develop from childhood and what types of things make some people better able to cope with stress than others. It also highlights some of the links between the bits of the brain that deal with rewards and the bits that deal with anxiety. It might partly explain how some people hate gambling and they get stressed out even with low stakes, while others remain cool until the stakes get really high. You really don't want to be playing any poker against them!
You can find the paper freely available from Koraly herself right here.