Early adversity profoundly affects diverse aspects of child development, including brain development, physiological reactivity to stress, and long-term risk for mental illness. Most models of these effects focus on the number rather than character of adverse childhood experiences. The current proposal tests a novel conceptual model focused on the type of exposure, which differentiates two primary dimensions of experience underlying multiple forms of adversity: deprivation and threat. Deprivation involves a lack of enriching and species expectant cognitive and social inputs (e.g., neglect). Threat involves actual or perceived danger to the physical integrity of the child (e.g., exposure to violence). Here we test the hypothesis that deprivation and threat increase risk for psychopathology through separable neurobiological pathways. We identify these pathways using basic animal and human neuroscience and present them as compliments to existing models. The proposed project will examine the impact of deprivation and threat on the development of neural networks in Cognitive Control Systems and Negative Valance Systems. We predict that early deprivation exposure results in reduced cognitive control, and disruptions in the neural systems supporting cognitive control. Early threat exposure, in contrast, results in disrupted fear learning and alterations in fear circuitry. The current proposal extends our previous work to include longitudinal prediction of psychopathology during middle childhood and in depth evaluation of the proposed neurodevelopmental mechanisms. It is widely hypothesized that adversity primarily influences neural development during early childhood, yet these associations are most often studied in adolescence and adulthood. Here we propose investigating early adversity exposure in young children aged 4-7 years when these systems are undergoing peak development. To assess deprivation and threat in young children we will use in-depth home assessments including observational and parent-report measures. All children will complete structural MRI and functional neuroimaging using EEG and fMRI. The PI has extensive experience collecting such measures from children in this age range and this work follows directly from her recently completed K01 award. Understanding neurodevelopmental processes linking adversity to psychopathology will open up new pathways to prevention and intervention. The proposed research would directly address Objectives 1 and 2 of the NIMH strategic plan.

Public Health Relevance

Early adversity profoundly affects short and long term risk for mental illness, along with many other diverse aspects of child development. Identifying neural pathways through which adversity comes to impact mental health is of central importance for improving prevention and intervention of psychopathology following these exposures and addresses Objectives 1 and 2 of the NIMH strategic plan. The current study is designed to identify pathways from early risk to psychopathology considering the impact of developmental environment on neural function/structure.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Research Project (R01)
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Child Psychopathology and Developmental Disabilities Study Section (CPDD)
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Zehr, Julia L
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University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Schools of Arts and Sciences
Chapel Hill
United States
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