In Brief

Brain and behavior changes during adolescence make it one of the most important times for people to receive preventive interventions for behavioral problems, said Emory University psychologist Elaine Walker, PhD, at APA's 2006 Annual Convention.

"Adolescence is the period when we often see the first clinical or subclinical manifestations of mental disorders," she explained.

For example, researchers have found that schizophrenia tends to take root between ages 14 and 20. Many people who develop schizophrenia and other major affective disorders show a number of behavioral and hormonal abnormalities, like increases in the stress hormone cortisol, before the major disorder fully develops. It is important to uncover and perhaps treat those abnormalities to help stave off the major disorders, Walker said.

The need to uncover hormone interactions intensifies for patients taking psychotropic medications, she said. In a 2004 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Vol. 161, No. 11, pages 2,021-2,027) that examined social and neuromotor interactions in people with schizophrenia, she found that in the United States and other industrialized countries psychotropic prescriptions for children have increased 500 percent since 1995. Moreover, pediatricians-rather than psychiatrists-prescribed most of the medications, and most of the recipients did not have an Axis I diagnosis.

In research at Emory University, Walker found that many psychotropic drugs, including stimulants, further increased children's cortisol release, which previous research suggests is linked with increased severity of schizophrenic symptoms like delusional ideas or suspiciousness.

Based on such findings, she urged caution regarding psychotropic medications for children and adolescents.

"As psychologists we need to be hypersensitive to fact that the pharmaceutical industry...is promoting a range of drugs in psychotropic interventions, which may not be beneficial [for some] adolescents and may alter normal hormonal developmental processes in an adverse way," she said.

--Z. Stambor