Red Flag: Childhood Irritability Could Signal Future Problems

Red Flag: Childhood Irritability Could Signal Future Problems

Pyschologist Jillian Lee Wiggins works with young children and youth to study irritability and predict risks for mental health issues later in life. Psychologist Jillian Lee Wiggins received $5.4 million in NIH grants to study irritable youth to predict risk for mental health issues. Tantrums in the supermarket and meltdowns at social gatherings are almost a rite of passage for many children – and a lesson in patience for their parents.

But what if this irritability is chronic and a sign of serious mental health issues that may only present later in life?

That’s the question researcher Jillian Lee Wiggins focuses on in her quest to develop a model for assessing whether a child will outgrow fractious behavior or if it presents a risk for conditions such as depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, or poor academic outcomes.

The San Diego State University psychologist recently received two significant grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH): $3.5 million to study early childhood irritability (National Institute of Mental Health) and $1.9 million to study the neural mechanisms of risk for serious issues as they transition to adolescence (National Institute of Drug Abuse).

Wiggins first embarked on this research pathway as a postdoctoral researcher at the NIH in Bethesda, Md. Her TEND (Translational Emotion Neuroscience and Development) lab at SDSU focuses on the development of social and emotional functioning.

Wiggins’ Brains in Growth (BIG) Emotions study will examine behavioral issues as preschool age children transition to kindergarten by doing brain scans at the SDSU MRI Center, and videotaping their interactions with parents. Her collaborator Lea Rose Dougherty, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, will code the behavior and facial expressions of children in her study, to help map the difference between how they look on the outside compared to how they are wired on the inside.

For the adolescent group, Wiggins will review brain imaging data from a larger study of 11,000 children conducted by a consortium of universities across the country to map neural mechanisms that indicate signs of deeper trouble.

“Jillian Wiggins applies state of the art neuroimaging techniques in creative ways to gain important, practical insights into child and teen behaviors,” said Jeff Roberts , dean of the College of Sciences. “She exemplifies SDSU’s commitment to research that makes a difference and betters the human condition.”

Wiggins spoke with the SDSU News Team about these research projects, which will be spread over five years.

When does irritability become a cause for serious concern?

Preschool age irritability is common, but if it continues into school age, that’s when it has detrimental consequences. Kids who persist into school age with irritability are more likely to later develop mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality, as well as […]

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