Interparental conflict is a common early environmental stressor with potential long-term consequences for emotional development and risk for psychopathology. Current research findings suggest that interparental conflict is associated with behavioral and physiological indices of emotion regulation during infancy (Crockenberg, Leerkes, &Lekka, 2007;Moore, 2010). Further, differences in biological systems associated with conflict during infancy have been identified as moderators of risk for school-aged children exposed to conflict (El-Sheikh et al., 2009). However, researchers have not yet explicated how exposure to conflict during infancy may get """"""""under the skin"""""""" to affect development of key neural systems. In the proposed study, we will utilize a neuroimaging technique, resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging, to examine differences in functional neural networks between infants from high and low conflict families. The cortical and limbic (cortico-limbic) level of the biological stress response system and a set of functionally connected regions known to be more activated during rest states, the default network (Raichle et al., 2001), will constitute the focus of this study due to evidence linking the development of these networks both to early adversity and to risk for psychopathology. This work will build on the applicant's ongoing study of two groups of 6- to 12-month- olds screened for high and low interparental conflict. Within this study, fMRI scans are conducted with infants during natural sleep. The purpose of the proposed investigation is to examine whether, among infants from high conflict families, regions of the cortico-limbic network involved in emotional reactivity are less functionally connected to regions important for regulatory processes. We will also investigate whether functional connectivity between regions of the default network previously shown to be less established in preterm infants (Smyser et al., 2010) will be less strong in infants from high conflict families. The current study represents a step towards examining common early environmental stressors in terms of potential consequences for neural networks that have been implicated in mental health disorders. Eventually, such work may facilitate the identification of targets for prevention and intervention and provide a basis for program evaluation in terms of reducing risk at a biological level. The proposed fellowship training covers stress neurobiology in the context of environmental risk, fMRI methods with challenging populations, and rs-fcMRI analyses. Training also focuses on the collaborative process that plays a central role in translational research.
Although exposure to interparental conflict is a risk factor for poor outcomes in childhood, it is not clear how early in life the effects of interparental conflict can be identified. The neuroimaging methods proposed for this study allow for a highly innovative approach to research in this area through the examination of individual brain regions that may be affected by interparental conflict and the functional connectivity among these regions. Explication of the earliest biomarkers of interparental conflict has great potential to increase our understanding of risk and to provide targets for early identification and prevention/intervention.
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