Feeling anxious? You may have a small inferior frontal cortex, then. New research has linked college students’ likelihood of suffering from anxiety and a negative mindset with the size of this brain area.

Anxious Yellow Face.

Image via Pixabay.

If you’re not anxious about something, anything, in college, you’re doing it wrong. The American College Health Association reports that some 60% of students experience one or more episodes of anxiety per year — which isn’t good.

“There is a very high level of anxiety in the student population, and this is affecting their life, their academic performance, everything,” said University of Illinois psychology postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper Sanda Dolcos.

“We are interested in identifying what is going on and preventing them from moving to the next level and developing clinical anxiety.”

Previous work has found a link between the size of someone’s inferior frontal cortex (IFC) and their likelihood of experiencing anxiety and developing a negative bias, Dolcos adds. So, together with graduate student Yifan Hu, she set out to find if the link holds true for college students. The team worked with 62 student participants, who were asked to complete standardized questionnaires aimed at gauging their anxiety levels, depressive tendencies, and biases (affective go/no-go task). Participants then had their brain structure recorded with neuroimaging techniques.

The results suggest that the relative size of the IFC is a good predictor of a student’s negative bias (tendency to view everything in a negative light) which “was mediated by” their levels of anxiety. In other words, people who had larger IFCs usually showed levels of anxiety. Those with smaller IFCs were more anxious, and this anxiety was associated with a predisposition towards developing negative biases.


“We found that larger IFC volume is protecting against negative bias through lower levels of trait anxiety,” Hu said.

“We are interested in identifying what is going on and preventing them from moving to the next level and developing clinical anxiety.”

Anxiety can impact all areas of someone’s life by keeping them on edge, always on the look-out for potential problems or dangers even under the best of circumstances. Negative biases throw a wrench in someone’s ability to invest in activities which would prove beneficial in the long run, as they keep expecting everything to go wrong. Understanding how brain structure and traits such as anxiety relate could help researchers find new ways address these conditions by directly influencing the brain.

The paper “Trait anxiety mediates the link between inferior frontal cortex volume and negative affective bias in healthy adults” has been published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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