Early-Life Adversity Tied to Brain Structure, Depression

Megan Brooks

August 25, 2015

A new study links family problems and other early life adversity to variation in brain structure in late adolescence and an increased risk for depression and anxiety among boys.

"The translational implications of this prospective study suggest the importance of interventions and policies for reducing mental health problems and enhancing at-risk children's well-being," Edward Barker, PhD, from the Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, United Kingdom, told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Barker, first author Sarah Jensen, MSc, from King's College London, and colleagues describe their research online August 17 in JAMA Pediatrics.

The researchers studied the effects of early-life adversity, such as interpersonal loss, family instability, and abuse toward the child and/or mother, experienced within the first 6 years of life, and child internalizing symptoms (ie, depression, anxiety) on cortical gray matter volume at age 18 to 21 years.

Participants included 494 mother-son pairs from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). The mothers reported on family adversities encountered by their sons through age 6. They also provided information on internalizing symptoms when their sons were aged 7, 10, and 13 years. In late adolescence, the boys underwent MRI.

The researchers found that early adversity predicted lower GM volumes in the anterior cingulate cortex (β = –0.18; P = .01), which is involved in emotion, decision-making, and empathy, and greater GM volume in the precuneus (β = 0.18; P = .009), involved in episodic memory, in adolescence.

Child internalizing symptoms were associated with lower GM volume in the right superior frontal gyrus (β = –0.20; P = .002).

Early adversity was also associated with higher levels of internalizing symptoms (β = .37; P < .001), which, in turn, were associated with lower superior frontal gyrus volume (β = –0.08; P = .02), the researchers say.

"Early adversity was related to variation in brain structure both directly and via increased levels of internalizing symptoms," they note in their article.

The results "confirm what we hypothesized — that variation in brain structure that associates with symptoms of depression does so (in part) through the early experience of adversity," Dr Barker told Medscape Medical News. "In other words, early adversity increases later symptoms of depression/anxiety, which, in turn, can associate with variation in cortical structure. Although this idea has been around for a while, we were the first to examine it with a prospective longitudinal birth cohort."

"Community agencies (eg, schools, churches, healthcare settings) can provide parents with information that not only does adversity negatively impact children's development but also a reduction in adversity may have positive effects on children's development," Dr Barker said.

"In addition, efficacious preventive interventions could be made available. Policy makers, in particular, may be helpful promoting early preventive intervention as a means of enhancing outcomes for disadvantaged children," he said.

The study had no commercial funding, and the authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Pediatr. Published online August 17, 2015. Abstract


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