Exposure to extreme stressors in early life is thought to substantially increase the risk of developmental psychopathology in children through effects of trauma processes on neurodevelopment.
The aim of this proposal is to elucidate the neurodevelopmental and clinical sequelae of one particularly common and pernicious form of early traumatic stress, i.e., family violence exposure. Both inter-parental violence and child- directed violence have considerable empirical linkage to increased clinical risk, as indicated by broad-band externalizing and internalizing problems and post-traumatic stress symptoms in clinical and community samples. Recent evidence from neuroscientific studies using small samples of extreme group contrasts (e.g., comparing maltreated vs. non-maltreated children) provides strong empirical grounding for postulating candidate neurodevelopmental mechanisms by which violence exposure exerts its effects, including atypical patterns of cognitive processing of emotion reflecting heightened sensitivity to anger and threat cues. Building on this foundational work, we employ a community-based sampling approach to amplify and extend this work along the full spectrum of family violence exposure and test applications to the broader population during the critical early childhood period.
Specific aims are to: (1) identify the optimal scaling of family violence exposure with a dimensional approach, which reflects variations in severity and forms of child violence exposure (from normative to extreme);(2) test the relationship of extent of violence exposure to specific patterns of preschool disruptive behavior, anxiety, and impairment;and (3) test whether atypical emotion processing characteristics mediate the link between exposure extent and psychopathology symptoms and functioning over time and establish whether these patterns are specific to violence exposure or are a more general effect of stress. We capitalize on a large pediatric sample (N=2,200) to be ascertained for the recently funded MAPS study on developmentally-sensitive characterization of preschool disruptive behavior (R01MH082830, Wakschlag, PI). From the sociodemographically stratified MAPS cohort, we draw a sample (N=300) enriched for family violence exposure and non-violent family stressors, but otherwise representative of the overall stratification. Parallel to the procedures of the MAPS study, a multi-informant, multi-method, developmentally-sensitive approach will be employed to assess preschool disruptive behavior and anxiety in a baseline laboratory visit and 6-month follow-up. In a second laboratory visit, family violence exposure will be assessed via an in-depth interview and preschoolers'emotion processing will be assessed with neurocognitive tasks (e.g., affective dot probe). Patterns of brain reactivity will be directly assessed during face processing using event-related potentials (ERPs) for a subset of 160 children. This approach shows promise for elucidating the role of traumatic stress exposure in the emergence of psychopathology and for providing a basis for broadly-applicable, novel interventions that can reduce the burden of mental disorder associated with early traumatic experiences.
The proposed study applies a translational perspective that combines a population-based approach to characterizing a dimensional spectrum of family violence exposure with neuroscientific paradigms that enable testing of putative neurodevelopmental mechanisms and their links to emergent psychopathology in young children. This line of inquiry provides a broadly useful paradigm for tracing how early experiences affect brain: behavior relations with long-term implications for the development of neuropsychiatric disorders including PTSD and other anxiety disorders, disruptive behavior disorders, and corollary bipolar and other mood disorders.
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