Violence Exposure and Brain Development in Children

Exposure to violence is associated with elevated risk for a wide range of mental health problems in children and adolescents, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the consistency of evidence linking child trauma to the onset of mental health problems, the neurodevelopmental mechanisms that underlie these associations remain poorly understood. The development of effective and efficient preventive interventions requires a better understanding of the specific developmental processes that are disrupted as a result of child trauma exposure and how those disruptions ultimately lead to psychopathology. In the current study, we examine how exposure to violence influences brain regions involved in emotional learning and emotion regulation. We are interested in how violence exposure influences attention to emotional cues in the environment, emotional learning, discrimination of threat and safety cues, and the ability to modulate emotional reactions. To study these questions, children and adolescents along with a parent/guardian were first invited to our lab at the University of Washington to complete interviews, surveys, and behavioral tasks. Some participants also completed an MRI scan at the Diagnostic Imaging Sciences Center at the University of Washington Medical School. This study was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (R01-MH03291) to Dr. McLaughlin.