The primary focus of our research is on the mechanisms that underlie the strong association between childhood adversities and risk for psychopathology. We aim to discover the specific aspects of emotional, cognitive, and neurobiological development that are disrupted by exposure to childhood adversity and that, in turn, serve as mechanisms linking these experiences to increased risk for mental disorders.
One of the key contributions of our work has been the discovery that the mechanisms linking childhood adversity with psychopathology vary across different types of adverse experiences. We have developed a new way of conceptualizing the early environmental that identifies key dimensions of environmental experience that underlie multiple forms of adversity, and that share common features that make them likely to influence developmental processes in similar ways. Our model distinguishes two central dimensions of adverse environmental experience: threat and deprivation. Threat reflects experiences involving harm or threat of harm, such as exposure to violence. Deprivation, in contrast, is the absence of expected cognitive and social inputs from the environment, resulting in reduced opportunities for learning. Although exposure to threat and deprivation often occur together, we argue that they in fact represent two independent dimensions of environmental experience, and our research has demonstrated that they have distinct impacts on emotional, cognitive, and neurobiological development. Below, we describe our work on each of these dimensions.