Dr. Fitzgerald will study camps that train clinically anxious young children in effortful control, to test the hypothesis that this training can remedy anxiety by neuroplastically engaging specific, measurable brain processes.
Childhood is full of new and exciting experiences. However, those experiences can be quite scary for the 20% of preschool-aged children suffering from clinically significant anxiety. Current treatment methods frequently fall short, with 30-50% of children continuing to experience anxiety after clinical treatment. When left unchecked, anxiety often persists into adulthood and can lead to depression, substance abuse, unemployment, and even suicide.
We at One Mind are thrilled to announce the selection of our 2016 One Mind/AIM Sullivan Family Foundation Rising Star Research Award winner: Dr. Kate Fitzgerald, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Dr. Fitzgerald proposes to test the neurobiological and behavioral effects of an original psychosocial treatment aimed to strengthen effortful control, a cognitive skill that may help remedy clinical anxiety in preschoolers.
Children who suffer from anxiety disorders typically display lower levels of effortful control (EC) than their non-anxious counterparts, making them less likely to directly confront fearful situations. They also exhibit a smaller error-related negativity (ERN)-a measure of brain response to errors believed to underlie effort control. In children, a lower ERN may combine with a larger fear-potentiated startle (FPS), a neurophysiological marker of fear reactivity, to drive anxiety.
Dr. Fitzgerald’s study looks at EC training as a way of raising a child’s ERN and lowering their FPS. This is done through interactive camps. The camps consist of several short exercises that teach EC skills, including selective attention, response inhibition, and set shifting, to groups of 4-6 children and their parents over several weeks. Preliminary camps with typically developing preschoolers have been effective at increasing ERN and EC behaviors. There was also a decrease in parent-reported anxiety. The focus is now on administering EC training to children with clinically significant anxiety.
Dr. Fitzgerald’s research has three aims:
- Test neural target engagement; that is, the extent to which the EC training increases ERN and decreases FPS.
- Explore associations between changes in ERN and FPS, anxiety-relevant behaviors, and symptom severity, thus generating preliminary effect sizes for follow-up, R01-level research.
- To lead to non-drug interventions to treat anxiety in children in the near-term.
We at One Mind are grateful to the donors of AIM for Mental Health for enabling us to support Dr. Fitzgerald and her research into childhood anxiety.