By Kathleen Holder
Anxiety is a common problem for children and adults with fragile X syndrome, magnifying their struggles living with an inherited intellectual disability. New UC Davis research could lead to new ways to identify and treat their anxiety at a young age—even in infancy.
The study led by developmental psychologists Jessica Burris and Susan Rivera found that infants and young children with fragile X syndrome, unlike typically developing children, tend to have their attention specifically captured by angry faces rather than happy ones. That sort of “attentional bias” toward angry faces is a pattern associated with anxiety.
The findings were reported in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Burris, now a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, conducted the study as a psychology graduate student in Rivera’s neurocognitive development lab at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. Rivera, in addition to being a professor at the Center for Mind and Brain, is a faculty member at the UC Davis MIND Institute and a professor and chair of the Department of Psychology.
Fragile X syndrome (FXS), caused by an abnormal X chromosome, is the most common inherited cause of intellectual disability, with impairment ranging from mild to severe. About one in 2,500 to 4,000 males and one in 7,000 to 8,000 females are born with it. Yet it often goes undiagnosed, or is misdiagnosed, because children with fragile X look a lot like typically developing children.
Other studies have found that more than 80 percent of people with fragile X ages 5 to 35 also suffer from clinical anxiety. But it’s difficult to directly measure anxiety in young children.
Focus on angry faces
For the study, the researchers used eye-tracking technology to observe the looking patterns of 47 children with fragile X, aged from 8 months to 5 years old, as they viewed side-by-side images of two faces: angry paired with neutral, happy with neutral, and neutral with neutral.
They found that fragile X children focused more on the angry faces than did typically developing children.
“While this task does not directly measure anxiety in young children with FXS, it presents a promising step towards a greater understanding of the heightened levels of anxiety that we see in individuals with FXS,” Burris said.
“These findings take us one step closer to identifying the underlying etiology of anxiety in FXS and to developing tailored, attentionally based treatments.”
Rivera said the findings could help identify anxiety in children with other developmental disorders as well.
Other co-authors on the paper are Ryan Barry-Anwar, now at the University of Florida; Riley Sims, now at University of Maryland; and Randi Hagerman and Flora Tassone, both of UC Davis.
The work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.