The ability to control your emotions is a characteristic that can greatly ease your passage through life. Having a handle on your emotions can get you through upsetting times, whether it's a stressful work situation, difficult life circumstance, or the ups and downs of an intimate relationship.

The groundwork for this ability is laid as the brain is making lots of new connections in the first years of life. The quality of the connections among and within certain brain centers go on to affect how a child behaves and processes emotion. They can also, as a University of North Carolina study shows, affect mental health in the years to come.

Looking at Developments in a Brain Hub for Processing Emotions

The team followed the brain development of a group of babies as they aged into childhood in order to trace the basis for the emergence of both typical and atypical processing of emotion and emotional regulation. First they scanned the brains of more than 230 infants over their first two years of life, focusing on an area called the amygdala, which plays a central role in the processing of emotion, and looking into its connection to other areas of the brain that govern emotion. Dysfunction of the amygdala is linked to anxiety disorders, depression and even schizophrenia down the road.

There were strong connections between how quickly the brain circuitry developed in infancy and a child’s anxiety levels and ability to process emotion at four years.

As the kids grew older and their brains continued to develop, the team followed up with them and their families to see how well they were processing emotions and to get a picture of their anxiety levels, self-control and overall cognition.

The scans revealed that the amygdala and its connectivity to other areas develop very quickly in the first year of life. In the second year of life, the scans revealed that there was mostly fine-tuning and strengthening of existing connections.

Through the lens of functional MRI, this study shows that the brain circuits that are essential for successful emotional regulation in adults are absent in neonates but emerge in one and two-year-olds, providing the foundation for successful emotional development,” study author, Wei Gao, said in a statement.

Most importantly, how quickly the brain circuitry developed in infancy was strongly linked with a child’s anxiety levels and ability to process emotion at four years old. The rate of development was also linked to the children’s scores on tests of cognition at age four.

The results suggest that the early differences in brain development the study found can affect behavior, cognition and maybe even mental health later on in childhood. And the good news is that brain development is not just a matter of genetics — it has a lot to do with the environment and children’s’ interactions with the people around them.

The ability to identify early markers of future behavioral or cognitive problems could lead to ways to protect or intervene in the brain development of certain populations, such as babies born prematurely or those exposed to drugs prenatally.

The study is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.