Early-life adversity (ELA) is strongly associated with risk for psychopathology. Within adversity, deprivation and threat may lead to psychopathology through different intermediary pathways. Specifically, deprivation, defined as the absence of expected cognitive and social inputs, is associated with lower performance on complex cognitive tasks whereas threatening experiences, defined as the presence of experiences that reflect harm to the child, are associated with atypical fear learning and emotional processes. However, distinct associations of deprivation and threat on behavioral outcomes have not been examined in early childhood. The present study examines how deprivation and threat are associated with cognitive and emotional outcomes in early childhood. Children 4-7 years old (N=63) completed behavioral tasks assessing cognitive control and fear conditioning; deprivation and threat were assessed using child interview and parent questionnaires. Regression analyses were performed including deprivation and threat scores and controls for age, gender and IQ. Because this is the first time these variables have been examined in early childhood, interactions with age were also examined. Deprivation, but not threat was associated with worse performance on the cognitive control task. Threat, but not deprivation interacted with age to predict fear learning. Young children who experienced high levels of threat showed evidence of fear learning measured by differential skin conductance response even at the earliest age measured. In contrast, for children not exposed to threat, fear learning emerged only in older ages. Children who experienced higher levels of threat also showed blunted reactivity measured by amplitude of skin conductance response to the reinforced stimuli regardless of age. Results suggest differential influences of deprivation and threat on cognitive and emotional outcomes even in early childhood. Future work should examine the neural mechanisms underlying these behavioral changes and link changes with increased risk for negative outcomes associated with adversity exposure, such as psychopathology.
Exposure to childhood adversity is common and a powerful risk factor for many forms of psychopathology. In this opinion piece, we argue for greater translation of knowledge about the developmental processes that are influenced by childhood adversity into targeted interventions to prevent the onset of psychopathology. Existing evidence has consistently identified several neurodevelopmental pathways that serve as mechanisms linking adversity with psychopathology. We highlight three domains in which these mechanisms are well-established and point to clear targets for intervention: 1) threat-related social information processing biases; 2) heightened emotional reactivity and difficulties with emotion regulation; and 3) disruptions in reward processing. In contrast to these established pathways, knowledge of how childhood adversity influences emotional learning mechanisms, including fear and reward learning, is remarkably limited. We see the investigation of these mechanisms as a critical next step for the field that will not only advance understanding of developmental pathways linking childhood adversity with psychopathology, but also provide clear targets for behavioral interventions. Knowledge of the mechanisms linking childhood adversity with psychopathology has advanced rapidly, and the time has come to translate that knowledge into clinical interventions to prevent the onset of mental health problems in children who have experienced adversity.
Background Despite equivalent or lower lifetime and past-year prevalence of mental disorder among racial/ethnic minorities compared to non-Latino Whites in the United States, evidence suggests that mental disorders are more persistent among minorities than non-Latino Whites. But, it is unclear how nativity and socioeconomic status contribute to observed racial/ethnic differences in prevalence and persistence of mood, anxiety, and substance disorders. Method Data were examined from a coordinated series of four national surveys that together assessed 21,024 Asian, non-Latino Black, Latino, and non-Latino White adults between 2001 and 2003. Common DSM-IV mood, anxiety, and substance disorders were assessed using the Composite International Diagnostic Interview. Logistic regression analyses examined how several predictors (e.g., race/ethnicity, nativity, education, income) and the interactions between those predictors were associated with both 12-month disorder prevalence and 12-month prevalence among lifetime cases. For the second series of analyses, age of onset and time since onset were used as additional control variables to indirectly estimate disorder persistence. Results Non-Latino Whites demonstrated the highest unadjusted 12-month prevalence of all disorder types (p \textless 0.001), though differences were also observed across minority groups. In contrast, Asian, Latino, and Black adults demonstrated higher 12-month prevalence of mood disorders among lifetime cases than Whites (p \textless 0.001) prior to adjustments Once we introduced nativity and other relevant controls (e.g., age, sex, urbanicity), US-born Whites with at least one US-born parent demonstrated higher 12-month mood disorder prevalence than foreign-born Whites or US-born Whites with two foreign parents (OR = 0.51, 95% CI = [0.36, 0.73]); this group also demonstrated higher odds of past-year mood disorder than Asian (OR = 0.59, 95% CI = [0.42, 0.82]) and Black (OR = 0.70, 95% CI = [0.58, 0.83]) adults, but not Latino adults (OR = 0.89, 95% CI = [0.74, 1.06]). Racial/ethnic differences in 12-month mood and substance disorder prevalence were moderated by educational attainment, especially among adults without a college education. Additionally, racial/ethnic minority groups with no more than a high school education demonstrated more persistent mood and substance disorders than non-Latino Whites; these relationships reversed or disappeared at higher education levels. Conclusion Nativity may be a particularly relevant consideration for diagnosing mood disorder among non-Latino Whites; additionally, lower education appears to be associated with increased relative risk of persistent mood and substance use disorders among racial/ethnic minorities compared to non-Latino Whites.
Background Recent conceptual models argue that early life adversity (ELA) accelerates development, which may contribute to poor mental and physical health outcomes. Evidence for accelerated development in youths comes from studies of telomere shortening or advanced pubertal development following circumscribed ELA experiences and neuroimaging studies of circuits involved in emotional processing. It is unclear whether all ELA is associated with accelerated development across global metrics of biological aging or whether this pattern emerges following specific adversity types. Methods In 247 children and adolescents 8 to 16 years of age with wide variability in ELA exposure, we evaluated the hypothesis that early environments characterized by threat, but not deprivation, would be associated with accelerated development across two global biological aging metrics: DNA methylation (DNAm) age and pubertal stage relative to chronological age. We also examined whether accelerated development explained associations of ELA with depressive symptoms and externalizing problems. Results Exposure to threat-related ELA (e.g., violence) was associated with accelerated DNAm age and advanced pubertal stage, but exposure to deprivation (e.g., neglect, food insecurity) was not. In models including both ELA types, threat-related ELA was uniquely associated with accelerated DNAm age ($\beta$ = .18) and advanced pubertal stage ($\beta$ = .28), whereas deprivation was uniquely associated with delayed pubertal stage ($\beta$ = -.21). Older DNAm age was related to greater depressive symptoms, and a significant indirect effect of threat exposure on depressive symptoms was observed through DNAm age. Conclusions Early threat-related experiences are particularly associated with accelerated biological aging in youths, which may be a mechanism linking ELA with depressive symptoms.
Childhood abuse is a potent risk factor for psychopathology, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research has shown high resting vagal tone, a measure of parasympathetic nervous system function, protects abused youth from developing internalizing psychopathology, but potential mechanisms explaining this effect are unknown. We explored fear extinction learning as a possible mechanism underlying the protective effect of vagal tone on PTSD symptoms among abused youth. We measured resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and skin conductance responses (SCR) during a fear conditioning and extinction task in youth with variability in abuse exposure (N = 94; aged 6-18 years). High RSA predicted lower PTSD symptoms and enhanced extinction learning among abused youths. In a moderated-mediation model, extinction learning mediated the association of abuse with PTSD symptoms only among youth with high RSA. These findings highlight extinction learning as a possible mechanism linking high vagal tone to decreased risk for PTSD symptoms among abused youth.
Childhood adversity is associated with altered reward processing, but little is known about whether this varies across distinct types of adversity. In a sample of 94 children (6-19 years), we investigated whether experiences of material deprivation, emotional deprivation, and trauma have differential associations with reward-related behavior and white matter microstructure in tracts involved in reward processing. Material deprivation (food insecurity), but not emotional deprivation or trauma, was associated with poor reward performance. Adversity-related influences on the integrity of white matter microstructure in frontostriatal tracts varied across childhood adversity types, and reductions in frontostriatal white matter integrity mediated the association of food insecurity with depressive symptoms. These findings document distinct behavioral and neurodevelopmental consequences of specific forms of adversity that have implications for psychopathology risk.