Spanking remains common around the world, despite evidence linking corporal punishment to detrimental child outcomes. This study tested whether children (Mage = 11.60) who were spanked (N = 40) exhibited altered neural function in response to stimuli that suggest the presence of an environmental threat compared to children who were not spanked (N = 107). Children who were spanked exhibited greater activation in multiple regions of the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), including dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, dorsomedial PFC, bilateral frontal pole, and left middle frontal gyrus in response to fearful relative to neutral faces compared to children who were not spanked. These findings suggest that spanking may alter neural responses to environmental threats in a manner similar to more severe forms of maltreatment.
The association between low socioeconomic status (SES) in childhood and increased risk for psychopathology is well established, but the mechanisms explaining this relationship are poorly understood. Here, we investigate the potential role of difficulties in executive functioning (EF) as a mechanism linking childhood and adolescent SES with externalizing and internalizing psychopathology.
We examined whether difficulties with EF mediated the association between SES and externalizing and internalizing psychopathology in two cross-sectional samples of children and adolescents (Study 1: N = 94, ages 6–18, 51.1% male; Study 2: N = 259, ages 8–16, 54.1% male) from diverse SES backgrounds in the United States. EF was measured through behavioral tasks and parent-reported behavioral regulation (BR).
In both samples, children and adolescents from lower SES families were more likely to experience both externalizing and internalizing psychopathology than youth from more advantaged backgrounds and exhibited greater EF difficulties – they had lower performance on a task measuring inhibitory control and lower parent-rated BR. Reduced inhibitory control and BR, in turn, were associated with higher externalizing and internalizing psychopathology. In Study 1, difficulties with BR mediated the association of low-SES with both externalizing and internalizing psychopathology. In Study 2, low inhibitory control mediated the association between low-SES and externalizing psychopathology. These findings largely persisted after adjusting for exposure to violence, a form of adversity that is common in children from low-SES backgrounds.
These findings suggest that reduced EF may be an underlying mechanism through which low-SES confers risk for psychopathology in children and adolescents.
Exposure to childhood adversity is a powerful risk factor for psychopathology. Despite extensive efforts, we have not yet identified effective or scalable interventions that prevent the emergence of mental health problems in children who have experienced adversity. In this modified Delphi study, we identified intervention strategies for effectively targeting both the neurodevelopmental mechanisms linking childhood adversity and psychopathology – including heightened emotional reactivity, difficulties with emotion regulation, blunted reward processing, and social information processing biases, as well as a range of psychopathology symptoms. We iteratively synthesized information from experts in the field and relevant meta-analyses through three surveys, first with experts in intervention development, prevention, and childhood adversity (n = 32), and then within our study team (n = 8). The results produced increasing stability and good consensus on intervention strategy recommendations for specific neurodevelopmental mechanisms and symptom presentations and on strength of evidence ratings of intervention strategies targeting youth and parents. More broadly, our findings highlight how intervention decision making can be informed by meta-analyses, enhanced by aggregate group feedback, saturated before consensus, and persistently subjective or even contradictory. Ultimately, the results converged on several promising intervention strategies for prevention programming with adversity-exposed youth, which will be tested in an upcoming clinical trial.
Stressful life events (SLEs) are strongly associated with the emergence of adolescent anxiety and depression, but the underlying mechanisms remain poorly understood, especially at the within-persons level. We investigated how adolescent social communication (i.e., frequency of calls and texts) following SLEs relates to changes in internalizing symptoms in a multitimescale, intensive, year-long study (N = 30; n = 355 monthly observations; n ≈ 5,000 experience-sampling observations). Within-persons increases in SLEs were associated with receiving more calls than usual at both the month and moment levels and making more calls at the month level. Increased calls were prospectively associated with worsening internalizing symptoms at the month level only, suggesting that SLEs rapidly influence phone communication patterns, but these communication changes may have a more protracted, cumulative influence on internalizing symptoms. Finally, increased incoming calls prospectively mediated the association between SLEs and anxiety at the month level. We identify adolescent social communication fluctuations as a potential mechanism conferring risk for stress-related internalizing psychopathology.
There is a strong positive association between childhood socioeconomic status (SES) and academic achievement. This disparity may, in part, be explained by differences in early environmental experiences and language development. Cognitive stimulation—including language exposure, access to learning materials, caregiver involvement in children’s learning, and variety of experiences—varies by SES and may link SES to language development. Childhood language development in turn is associated with academic achievement. In the current longitudinal study of 101 children (60–75 months), SES was positively associated with cognitive stimulation and performance on language measures. Cognitive stimulation mediated the association between SES and children’s language. Furthermore, children’s language mediated the association between SES and academic achievement 18 months later. In addition to addressing broader inequalities in access to resources that facilitate caregivers’ abilities to provide cognitive stimulation, cognitive stimulation itself could be targeted in future interventions to mitigate SES-related disparities in language and academic achievement.
Adolescents exposed to violence are at elevated risk of developing most forms of psychopathology, including depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse. Prior research has identified emotional reactivity and difficulties with emotion regulation as core mechanisms linking violence exposure with psychopathology. Scant research has examined behavioral responses to distress as a mechanism in this association. This study examined the association of violence exposure with distress tolerance—the ability to persist in the face of distress—and whether lower distress tolerance linked violence exposure with subsequent increases in depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse problems during adolescence. Data were collected prospectively in a sample of 287 adolescents aged 16–17 (44.3% male; 40.8% White). At Time 1, participants provided self-report of demographics, violence exposure, and psychopathology, and completed a behavioral measure of distress tolerance, the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task. Four months later, participants (n = 237) repeated the psychopathology assessments. Violence exposure was associated with lower distress tolerance (β = -.21 p = .009), and elevated concurrent psychopathology (β = .16-.45, p = .001-.004). Low distress tolerance was prospectively associated with greater likelihood of abusing alcohol over time (OR = .63, p = .021), and mediated the association between violence exposure and greater levels (β = .02, 95% CI [.001, .063]) and likelihood (OR = .03, 95% CI [.006, .065]) of alcohol use over time. In contrast, low distress tolerance was not associated concurrently or prospectively with internalizing symptoms. Results persisted after controlling for socio-economic status. Findings suggest that distress tolerance is shaped by early experiences of threat and plays a role in the association between violence exposure and development of problematic alcohol use in adolescence.
Exposure to stressful life events is strongly associated with internalizing psychopathology, and identifying factors that reduce vulnerability to stress-related internalizing problems is critical for development of early interventions. Drawing on research from affective science, we tested whether high emotion differentiation—the ability to specifically identify one’s feelings—buffers adolescents from developing internalizing symptoms when exposed to stress. Thirty adolescents completed a laboratory measure of emotion differentiation before an intensive yearlong longitudinal study in which exposure to stress and internalizing problems were assessed at both the moment level (n = 4,921 experience-sampling assessments) and month level (n = 355 monthly assessments). High negative and positive emotion differentiation attenuated moment-level coupling between perceived stress and feelings of depression, and high negative emotion differentiation eliminated month-level associations between stressful life events and anxiety symptoms. These results suggest that high emotion differentiation buffers adolescents against anxiety and depression in the face of stress, perhaps by facilitating adaptive emotion regulation.
Attention biases to emotion are associated with symptoms of internalizing and externalizing psychopathology in children and adolescents. It is unknown whether attention biases to emotion and their associations with different symptoms of psychopathology vary across development from early childhood through young adulthood. We examine this age-related variation in the current study. Participants (N = 190; ages: 4–25) completed survey-based psychopathology symptom measures and a dot-probe task to assess attention bias to happy, sad, and angry relative to neutral faces. We tested whether linear or non-linear (e.g., spline-based models) associations best characterized age-related variation in attention to emotion. We additionally examined whether attention biases were associated with depression, anxiety, and externalizing symptoms and whether these associations varied by age. No age-related differences in attention biases were found for any of the emotional faces. Attention biases were associated with psychopathology symptoms, but only when examining moderation by age. Biased attention to angry faces was associated with greater symptoms of anxiety and depression in adolescents and young adults, but not children. Similarly, biased attention to happy faces was associated with externalizing symptoms in adolescents and young adults, but not in children. In contrast, biased attention to happy faces was associated with greater anxiety symptoms in children, but not in adolescents or young adults. Biased attention toward social threat and reward becomes more strongly coupled with internalizing and externalizing symptoms, respectively, during the transition to adolescence. These findings could inform when interventions such as attention bias modification training may be most effective.
The depression gap refers to higher rates of depression among women than men. Change in the depression gap over time may elucidate social causes of this disparity—such as unequal college attendance or employment status. We conducted a meta-regression analysis to estimate variation in the depression gap over time by age, accounting for potential sources of variation between studies. Electronic databases and bibliographies were searched for English language studies from January 1980–October 2019. 144 independent estimates from United States-representative samples met selection criteria (n=813,189). The depression gap was summarized as prevalence ratios (PR) among studies using diagnostic instruments, and standardized mean differences among symptom-based studies. Primary study measures were baseline study year (range: 1982-2017), and age (range: 10-60+). Compared with respondents ages 60+, depression prevalence was greater among respondents aged 10-19 (PR=1.26; 95% CI=1.02, 1.56). Over time, the depression gap did not change among adults, but increased among adolescents (age by time interaction PR=1.05; 95% CI=1.01, 1.08). Results were similar for symptom-based studies. The present study finds no evidence of a change in the depression gender gap for US adults, however, the gap increased among adolescents. Greater attention to factors driving this widening disparity in adolescent depression is needed.
Although increasing numbers of children have socially transitioned to live in line with their gender identities, little is known about factors associated with their wellbeing. This study examines the associations between parent-reported family, peer, and school support for a youth’s gender identity, as well as an objective measure of state-level support, with parent-reported internalizing symptoms in 265 transgender youth (67.2% transgender girls, 32.8% transgender boys), ages 3–15 years (M = 9.41, SD = 2.62). Parents who reported higher levels of family, peer, and school support for their child’s gender identity also reported fewer internalizing symptoms; the objective measure of state-level support was not related to internalizing symptoms. Additionally, peer and school support buffered against the association between gender-related victimization and internalizing symptoms, as reported by parents. This work demonstrates that even among transgender youth with families who supported their transitions, parents see better well-being in their children when they also see more support for the child’s gender identity from family, peers, and schools.
Children raised in families with low socioeconomic status (SES) are more likely to exhibit symptoms of psychopathology. However, the strength of this association, the specific indices of SES most strongly associated with childhood psychopathology, and factors moderating the association are strikingly inconsistent across studies. We conducted a meta-analysis of 120 estimates of the association between family SES and child psychopathology in 13 population-representative cohorts of children studied in the US since 1980. Among 26,715 participants aged 3–19 years, we observed small to moderate associations of low family income (g = 0.19), low Hollingshead index (g = 0.21), low subjective SES (g = 0.24), low parental education (g = 0.25), poverty status (g = 0.25), and receipt of public assistance (g = 0.32) with higher levels of childhood psychopathology. Moderator testing revealed that receipt of public assistance showed an especially strong association with psychopathology and that SES was more strongly related to externalizing than internalizing psychopathology. Dispersion in our final, random effects, model suggested that the relation between SES and child psychopathology is likely to vary in different populations of children and in different communities. These findings highlight the need for additional research on the mechanisms of SES-related psychopathology risk in children in order to identify targets for potential intervention.
Background: Adolescence has been proposed to be a period of heightened sensitivity to environmental influence. If true, adolescence may present a window of opportunity for recovery for children exposed to early-life adversity. Recent evidence supports adolescent recalibration of stress response systems following early-life adversity. However, it is unknown whether similar recovery occurs in other domains of functioning in adolescence. Methods: We use data from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project – a randomized controlled trial of foster care for children raised in psychosocially depriving institutions – to examine the associations of the caregiving environment with reward processing, executive functioning, and internalizing and externalizing psychopathology at ages 8, 12, and 16 years, and evaluate whether these associations change across development. Results: Higher quality caregiving in adolescence was associated with greater reward responsivity and lower levels of internalizing and externalizing symptoms, after covarying for the early-life caregiving environment. The associations of caregiving with executive function and internalizing and externalizing symptoms varied by age and were strongest at age 16 relative to ages 8 and 12 years. This heightened sensitivity to caregiving in adolescence was observed in both children with and without exposure to early psychosocial neglect. Conclusions: Adolescence may be a period of heightened sensitivity to the caregiving environment, at least for some domains of functioning. For children who experience early psychosocial deprivation, this developmental period may be a window of opportunity for recovery of some functions. Albeit correlational, these findings suggest that it may be possible to reverse or remediate some of the lasting effects of early-life adversity with interventions that target caregiving during adolescence. Keywords: Institutionalization; reward; executive function; psychopathology; adolescence.
Although common sense suggests that we are motivated to pursue positive and avoid negative experiences, previous research shows that people regularly seek out negative experiences. In the current study, we characterized this tendency from childhood to young adulthood. Due to the known increases in risky behavior and sensation seeking in adolescence, we hypothesized that adolescents would show an increased engagement with negatively valenced stimuli compared to children and adults. Participants aged 4–25 (N = 192) completed a behavioral task assessing motivation to engage with negative, positive, and neutral images. On each trial, participants viewed two small images and selected one to view at a larger size for up to 10s. Trials were organized into three valence conditions: negative versus positive images (matched on arousal), negative versus neutral images, and positive versus neutral images. Although participants chose positive images more than neutral or negative images, participants selected negative images frequently, even when given a positive (28% of trials) or neutral (42% of trials) alternative. Contrary to expectations, the tendency to choose negative images was highest in early childhood and decreased linearly with increasing age, and the tendency to choose positive images increased linearly with age. These results provide insight into how motivation to engage with emotional stimuli varies across age. It is possible that the novelty and rarity of negative experiences drives children to pursue these stimuli. Alternatively, children may find negative images less aversive, which would caution against assuming that these stimuli elicit the same motivational states in individuals of all ages.
Background Early adversity consistently predicts youth psychopathology. However, the pathways linking unique dimensions of early adversity, such as deprivation, to psychopathology are understudied. Here, we evaluate a theoretical model linking early deprivation exposure with psychopathology prospectively through language ability. Methods Participants included 2,301 youth (47.5% female) enrolled in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. We include data from assessment points at ages 1, 3, 5, 9, and 15. Latent factors for deprivation and threat were modeled from multiple indicators at ages 1 and 3. Youth language ability was assessed at Age 5. Indicators of psychopathology were assessed at ages 5, 9, and 15. A structural equation model tested longitudinal paths to internalizing and externalizing psychopathology from experiences of deprivation and threat. Results Deprivation from birth to Age 3 was associated with an indirect effect on internalizing and externalizing symptoms in early childhood (Age 5), later childhood (Age 9), and adolescence (Age 15) via language ability in early childhood (Age 5). Early threat exposure was associated with increased internalizing and externalizing psychopathology across all ages. There was no significant indirect effect from threat to psychopathology via language ability. Conclusions The effects of deprivation on psychopathology during early childhood, late childhood, and adolescence are explained, in part, through early childhood language ability. Results provide insight into language ability as a possible opportunity for intervention.
BACKGROUND: Disruptions in neural circuits underlying emotion regulation (ER) may be a mechanism linking child maltreatment with psychopathology. We examined the associations of maltreatment with neural responses during passive viewing of negative emotional stimuli and attempts to modulate emotional responses. We investigated whether the influence of maltreatment on neural activation during ER differed across development and whether alterations in brain function mediated the association between maltreatment and a latent general psychopathology ('p') factor. METHODS: Youth aged 8-16 years with (n = 79) and without (n = 72) exposure to maltreatment completed an ER task assessing neural responses during passive viewing of negative and neutral images and effortful attempts to regulate emotional responses to negative stimuli. P-factor scores were defined by a bi-factor model encompassing internalizing and externalizing psychopathology. RESULTS: Maltreated youth had greater activation in left amygdala and salience processing regions and reduced activation in multiple regions involved in cognitive control (bilateral superior frontal gyrus, middle frontal gyrus, and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) when viewing negative v. neutral images than youth without maltreatment exposure. Reduced neural recruitment in cognitive control regions mediated the association of maltreatment with p-factor in whole-brain analysis. Maltreated youth exhibited increasing recruitment with age in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex during reappraisal while control participants exhibited decreasing recruitment with age. Findings were similar after adjusting for co-occurring neglect. CONCLUSIONS: Child maltreatment influences the development of regions associated with salience processing and cognitive control during ER in ways that contribute to psychopathology.
A growing number of studies have examined alterations in white matter organization in people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using diffusion MRI (dMRI), but the results have been mixed which may be partially due to relatively small sample sizes among studies. Altered structural connectivity may be both a neurobiological vulnerability for, and a result of, PTSD. In an effort to find reliable effects, we present a multi-cohort analysis of dMRI metrics across 3047 individuals from 28 cohorts currently participating in the PGC-ENIGMA PTSD working group (a joint partnership between the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium and the Enhancing NeuroImaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis consortium). Comparing regional white matter metrics across the full brain in 1426 individuals with PTSD and 1621 controls (2174 males/873 females) between ages 18–83, 92% of whom were trauma-exposed, we report associations between PTSD and disrupted white matter organization measured by lower fractional anisotropy (FA) in the tapetum region of the corpus callosum (Cohen’s d = −0.11, p = 0.0055). The tapetum connects the left and right hippocampus, for which structure and function have been consistently implicated in PTSD. Results were consistent even after accounting for the effects of multiple potentially confounding variables: childhood trauma exposure, comorbid depression, history of traumatic brain injury, current alcohol abuse or dependence, and current use of psychotropic medications. Our results show that PTSD may be associated with alterations in the broader hippocampal network.
Children who spend their early lives in institutions experience profound psychosocial deprivation that is associated with altered stress response system development. Here, we used data from a longitudinal randomized controlled trial of foster care for institutionally reared children to examine whether caregiving quality and stressful life events (SLEs) in early adolescence (age 12) influence patterns of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) reactivity. Controlling for the effect of institutional care, higher caregiving quality at age 12 was associated with heightened cortisol and SNS reactivity. However, moderation analysis revealed that the latter effect was only observed among never-institutionalized children, whereas ever-institutionalized children demonstrated a persistently blunted SNS response regardless of recent caregiving quality. Among institutionally reared children, SLEs interacted with prior random assignment to foster care, such that those placed in foster care early in development had a SNS response that approximated never-institutionalized children when SLEs at age 12 were low. In contrast, SNS reactivity was persistently blunted among those with prolonged deprivation, regardless of recent SLEs. Early-life deprivation is associated with persistent blunting of stress response systems, but normalization may be achievable if SLEs are limited following placement into enriched family-based care.
Studies of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) report volume abnormalities in multiple regions of the cerebral cortex. However, findings for many regions, particularly regions outside commonly studied emotion-related prefrontal, insular, and limbic regions, are inconsistent and tentative. Also, few studies address the possibility that PTSD abnormalities may be confounded by comorbid depression. A mega-analysis investigating all cortical regions in a large sample of PTSD and control subjects can potentially provide new insight into these issues. Given this perspective, our group aggregated regional volumes data of 68 cortical regions across both hemispheres from 1379 PTSD patients to 2192 controls without PTSD after data were processed by 32 international laboratories using ENIGMA standardized procedures. We examined whether regional cortical volumes were different in PTSD vs. controls, were associated with posttraumatic stress symptom (PTSS) severity, or were affected by comorbid depression. Volumes of left and right lateral orbitofrontal gyri (LOFG), left superior temporal gyrus, and right insular, lingual and superior parietal gyri were significantly smaller, on average, in PTSD patients than controls (standardized coefficients = −0.111 to −0.068, FDR corrected P values \textless 0.039) and were significantly negatively correlated with PTSS severity. After adjusting for depression symptoms, the PTSD findings in left and right LOFG remained significant. These findings indicate that cortical volumes in PTSD patients are smaller in prefrontal regulatory regions, as well as in broader emotion and sensory processing cortical regions.
Sensitive periods neurobiologically encode environmental experiences to facilitate plasticity and learning in human development. Knowledge of human sensitive periods has largely come from methods developed in animal models and remains limited in many domains. We provide a framework and suite of approaches to study these phenomena in humans to stimulate progress in understanding human sensitive periods. To do so, we evaluate how current research approaches can shed light on different aspects of human sensitive period processes. These approaches comprise environmental manipulations like deprivation and substitution paradigms, pharmacological manipulations, and computational modeling. Finally, we propose three novel approaches rooted in human neuroscience—including impoverished environments, enriched environmental interventions, and individual differences in stress—to motivate future research on sensitive period mechanisms.