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Dimensions of childhood adversity have distinct associations with neural systems underlying executive functioning

  • Margaret A. Sheridan (a1), Matthew Peverill (a2), Amy S. Finn (a3) and Katie A. McLaughlin (a2)


Childhood adversity is associated with increased risk for psychopathology. Neurodevelopmental pathways underlying this risk remain poorly understood. A recent conceptual model posits that childhood adversity can be deconstructed into at least two underlying dimensions, deprivation and threat, that are associated with distinct neurocognitive consequences. This model argues that deprivation (i.e., a lack of cognitive stimulation and learning opportunities) is associated with poor executive function (EF), whereas threat is not. We examine this hypothesis in two studies measuring EF at multiple levels: performance on EF tasks, neural recruitment during EF, and problems with EF in daily life. In Study 1, deprivation (low parental education and child neglect) was associated with greater parent-reported problems with EF in adolescents (N = 169; 13–17 years) after adjustment for levels of threat (community violence and abuse), which were unrelated to EF. In Study 2, low parental education was associated with poor working memory (WM) performance and inefficient neural recruitment in the parietal and prefrontal cortex during high WM load among adolescents (N = 51, 13–20 years) after adjusting for abuse, which was unrelated to WM task performance and neural recruitment during WM. These findings constitute strong preliminary evidence for a novel model of the neurodevelopmental consequences of childhood adversity.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Margaret A. Sheridan, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 235 East Cameron Street, Office 248, Chapel Hill, NC 27599; E-mail:


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This research was funded by National Institutes of Mental Health Grants K01-MH092625 (to K.A.M.) and K01-MH092555 (to M.A.S.). The authors have no financial disclosures or conflicts of interest to report.



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