The study found that the brain regions which showed the greatest MRI changes during adolescence were those in which genes linked to schizophrenia risk were most strongly expressed.
Teenagers’ brains can reveal whether they will develop mental health conditions later in life, research has found.
Brain scans can therefore give clues as to whether adolescents may be at greater risk of having schizophrenia or depression, years before the conditions take effect.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge and University College London conducted MRI scans on almost 300 young people aged 14-24 to monitor brain structure.
Results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the brain regions which showed the greatest MRI changes during adolescence were those in which genes linked to schizophrenia risk were most strongly expressed.
Professor Ed Bullimore, Head of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said: “Adolescence can be a difficult transitional period and it’s when we typically see the first signs of mental health disorders such as schizophrenia and depression.
“This study gives us a clue why this is the case: it’s during these teenage years that those brain regions that have the strongest link to the schizophrenia risk genes are developing most rapidly.”
He added: “As these regions are important hubs that control how regions of our brain communicate with each other, it shouldn’t be too surprising that when something goes wrong there, it will affect how smoothly our brains work.
“If one imagines these major hubs of the brain network to be like international airports in the airline network, then we can see that disrupting the development of brain hubs could have as big an impact on communication of information across the brain network as disruption of a major airport, like Heathrow, will have on flow of passenger traffic across the airline network.”
Dr Kirstie Whitaker from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and lead study author said: “During our teenage years, our brains continue to develop. When we’re still children, these changes may be more dramatic, but in adolescence we see that the changes refine the detail.
“The hubs that connect different regions are becoming set in place as the most important connections strengthen. We believe this is where we are seeing myelin increasing in adolescence.”
It is thought that as many as 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in the UK every year. The NHS advocates diagnosis and intervention as soon as possible in order to manage the condition and improve recovery chances.
Depression and anxiety are the most common forms of mental health diagnosis in Britain. It is estimated that 1 in 100 people will experience schizophrenia at some point in their lifetime, however it has been suggested that many more people may experience it but defer seeking help due to stigma about the condition and its symptoms.