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Although early-life adversity can undermine healthy development, an evolutionary-developmental perspective implies that children growing up in harsh environments will develop intact, or even enhanced, skills for solving problems in high‐adversity contexts (i.e., 'hidden talents'). This Element situates the hidden talents model within a larger interdisciplinary framework. Summarizing theory and research on hidden talents, it proposes that stress-adapted skills represent a form of adaptive intelligence enabling individuals to function within the constraints of harsh environments. It discusses potential applications of this perspective to multiple sectors concerned with youth from harsh environments, including education, social services, and juvenile justice, and compares the hidden talents model with contemporary developmental resilience models. The hidden talents approach, it concludes, offers exciting directions for research on childhood adversity, with translational implications for leveraging stress-adapted skills to more effectively tailor education, jobs, and interventions to fit the needs of individuals from a diverse range of life circumstances.
Early caregiving adversity (ECA) is associated with elevated psychological symptomatology. While neurobehavioral ECA research has focused on socioemotional and cognitive development, ECA may also increase risk for “low-level” sensory processing challenges. However, no prior work has compared how diverse ECA exposures differentially relate to sensory processing, or, critically, how this might influence psychological outcomes. We examined sensory processing challenges in 183 8-17-year-old youth with and without histories of institutional (orphanage) or foster caregiving, with a particular focus on sensory over-responsivity (SOR), a pattern of intensified responses to sensory stimuli that may negatively impact mental health. We further tested whether sensory processing challenges are linked to elevated internalizing and externalizing symptoms common in ECA-exposed youth. Relative to nonadopted comparison youth, both groups of ECA-exposed youth had elevated sensory processing challenges, including SOR, and also had heightened internalizing and externalizing symptoms. Additionally, we found significant indirect effects of ECA on internalizing and externalizing symptoms through both general sensory processing challenges and SOR, covarying for age and sex assigned at birth. These findings suggest multiple forms of ECA confer risk for sensory processing challenges that may contribute to mental health outcomes, and motivate continuing examination of these symptoms, with possible long-term implications for screening and treatment following ECA.
Exposure to adversity in childhood is associated with elevations in numerous physical and mental health outcomes across the life course. The biological embedding of early experience during periods of developmental plasticity is one pathway that contributes to these associations. Dimensional models specify mechanistic pathways linking different dimensions of adversity to health and well-being outcomes later in life. While findings from existing studies testing these dimensions have provided promising preliminary support for these models, less agreement exists about how to measure the experiences that comprise each dimension. Here, we review existing approaches to measuring two dimensions of adversity: threat and deprivation. We recommend specific measures for measuring these constructs and, when possible, document when the same measure can be used by different reporters and across the lifespan to maximize the utility with which these recommendations can be applied. Through this approach, we hope to stimulate progress in understanding how particular dimensions of early environmental experience contribute to lifelong health.
Early psychosocial adversities exist at many levels, including caregiving-related, extrafamilial, and sociodemographic, which despite their high interrelatedness may have unique impacts on development. In this paper, we focus on caregiving-related early adversities (crEAs) and parse the heterogeneity of crEAs via data reduction techniques that identify experiential cooccurrences. Using network science, we characterized crEA cooccurrences to represent the comorbidity of crEA experiences across a sample of school-age children (n = 258; 6–12 years old) with a history of crEAs. crEA dimensions (variable level) and crEA subtypes (subject level) were identified using parallel factor analysis/principal component analysis and graph-based Louvain community detection. Bagging enhancement with cross-validation provided estimates of robustness. These data-driven dimensions/subtypes showed evidence of stability, transcended traditional sociolegally defined groups, were more homogenous than sociolegally defined groups, and reduced statistical correlations with sociodemographic factors. Finally, random forests showed both unique and common predictive importance of the crEA dimensions/subtypes for childhood mental health symptoms and academic skills. These data-driven outcomes provide additional tools and recommendations for crEA data reduction to inform precision medicine efforts in this area.
Early life adversity (ELA) has been linked with increased arousal responses to threat, including increased amygdala reactivity. Effects of ELA on brain function are well recognized, and emerging evidence suggests that caregivers may influence how environmental stressors impact children’s brain function. We investigated the hypothesis that positive interaction between mother and child can buffer against ELA effects on children’s neural responses to threat, and related symptoms. N = 53 mother–child pairs (children ages 8–14 years) were recruited from an urban population at high risk for violence exposure. Maternal caregiving was measured using the Parenting Questionnaire and in a cooperation challenge task. Children viewed fearful and neutral face stimuli during functional magnetic resonance imaging. Children who experienced greater violence at home showed amygdala sensitization, whereas children experiencing more school and community violence showed amygdala habituation. Sensitization was in turn linked with externalizing symptoms. However, maternal warmth was associated with a normalization of amygdala sensitization in children, and fewer externalizing behaviors prospectively up to 1 year later. Findings suggested that the effects of violence exposure on threat-related neural circuitry depend on trauma context (inside or outside the home) and that primary caregivers can increase resilience.
A variety of childhood experiences can lead to anxious/depressed (A/D) symptoms. The aim of the present study was to explore the brain morphological (cortical thickness and surface area) correlates of A/D symptoms and the extent to which these phenotypes vary depending on the quality of the parenting context in which children develop. Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were acquired on 45 children with Child Protective Services (CPS) involvement due to risk of not receiving adequate care (high-risk group) and 25 children without CPS involvement (low-risk group) (rangeage = 8.08–12.14; Mage = 10.05) to assess cortical thickness (CT) and cortical surface area (SA). A/D symptoms were measured using the Child Behavioral Checklist. The association between A/D symptoms and CT, but not SA, differed by risk status such that high-risk children showed decreasing CT as A/D scores increased, whereas low-risk children showed increasing CT as A/D scores increased. This interaction was specific to CT in prefrontal, frontal, temporal, and parietal cortical regions. The groups had marginally different A/D scores, in the direction of higher risk being associated with lower A/D scores. Results suggest that CT correlates of A/D symptoms are differentially shaped by the quality of early caregiving experiences and should be distinguished between high- and low-risk children.
Early adversities that are caregiving-related (crEAs) are associated with a significantly increased risk for mental health problems. Recent neuroscientific advances have revealed alterations in medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC)-subcortical circuitry following crEAs. While this work has identified alterations in affective operations (e.g., perceiving, reacting, controlling, learning) associated with mPFC–subcortical circuitry, this circuitry has a much broader function extending beyond operations. It plays a primary role in affective meaning making, involving conceptual-level, schematized knowledge to generate predictions about the current environment. This function of mPFC–subcortical circuitry motivates asking whether mPFC–subcortical phenotypes following crEAs support semanticized knowledge content (or the concept-level knowledge) and generate predictive models. I present a hypothesis motivated by research findings across four different lines of work that converge on mPFC–subcortical neuroanatomy, including (a) the neurobiology supporting emotion regulation processes in adulthood, (b) the neurobiology that is activated by caregiving cues during development, (c) the neurobiology that is altered by crEAs, and (d) the neurobiology of semantic-based meaning making. I hypothesize that the affective behaviors following crEAs result in part from affective semantic memory processes supported by mPFC–subcortical circuitry that over the course of development, construct affective schemas that generate meaning making and guide predictions. I use this opportunity to review some of the literature on mPFC–subcortical circuit development following crEAs to illustrate the motivation behind this hypothesis. Long recognized by clinical science and cognitive neuroscience, studying schema-based processes may be particularly helpful for understanding how affective meaning making arises from developmental trajectories of mPFC–subcortical circuitry.
Although early-life adversity can undermine healthy development, children growing up in harsh environments may develop intact, or even enhanced, skills for solving problems in high-adversity contexts (i.e., “hidden talents”). Here we situate the hidden talents model within a larger interdisciplinary framework. Summarizing theory and research on hidden talents, we propose that stress-adapted skills represent a form of adaptive intelligence that enables individuals to function within the constraints of harsh, unpredictable environments. We discuss the alignment of the hidden talents model with current knowledge about human brain development following early adversity; examine potential applications of this perspective to multiple sectors concerned with youth from harsh environments, including education, social services, and juvenile justice; and compare the hidden talents model with contemporary developmental resilience models. We conclude that the hidden talents approach offers exciting new directions for research on developmental adaptations to childhood adversity, with translational implications for leveraging stress-adapted skills to more effectively tailor education, jobs, and interventions to fit the needs and potentials of individuals from a diverse range of life circumstances. This approach affords a well-rounded view of people who live with adversity that avoids stigma and communicates a novel, distinctive, and strength-based message.
Callous-unemotional (CU) traits characterize a subset of youth at risk for persistent and serious antisocial behavior. Differences in resting state connectivity in the default mode network (DMN) have been associated with CU traits in forensic and clinical samples of adolescents and with deficient interpersonal/affective traits (often operationalized as Factor 1 psychopathy traits) in adults. It is unclear whether these brain-behavior associations extend to community-based children. Using mixed model analyses, we tested the associations between CU traits and within-network resting-state connectivity of seven task-activated networks and the DMN using data from 9,636 9–11-year-olds in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. Even after accounting for comorbid externalizing problems, higher levels of CU traits were associated with reduced connectivity within the DMN. This finding is consistent with prior literature surrounding psychopathy and CU traits in clinically and forensically based populations, suggesting the correlation likely exists on a spectrum, can be detected in childhood, and is not restricted to children with significant antisocial behavior.
Adverse caregiving, for example, previous institutionalization (PI), is often associated with emotion dysregulation that increases anxiety risk. However, the concept of developmental multifinality predicts heterogeneity in anxiety outcomes. Despite this well-known heterogeneity, more work is needed to identify sources of this heterogeneity and how these sources interact with environmental risk to influence mental health. Here, working memory (WM) was examined during late childhood/adolescence as an intra-individual factor to mitigate the risk for separation anxiety, which is particularly susceptible to caregiving adversities. A modified “object-in-place” task was administered to 110 youths (10–17 years old), with or without a history of PI. The PI youths had elevated separation anxiety scores, which were anticorrelated with morning cortisol levels, yet there were no group differences in WM. PI youths showed significant heterogeneity in separation anxiety symptoms and morning cortisol levels, and WM moderated the link between caregiving and separation anxiety and mediated the association between separation anxiety and morning cortisol in PI youth. Findings suggest that (a) institutional care exerts divergent developmental consequences on separation anxiety versus WM, (b) WM interacts with adversity-related emotion dysregulation, and (c) WM may be a therapeutic target for separation anxiety following early caregiving adversity.
Gastrointestinal and mental disorders are highly comorbid, and animal models have shown that both can be caused by early adversity (e.g., parental deprivation). Interactions between the brain and bacteria that live within the gastrointestinal system (the microbiome) underlie adversity–gastrointestinal–anxiety interactions, but these links have not been investigated during human development. In this study, we utilized data from a population of 344 youth (3–18 years old) who were raised with their biological parents or were exposed to early adverse caregiving experiences (i.e., institutional or foster care followed by international adoption) to explore adversity–gastrointestinal–anxiety associations. In Study 1, we demonstrated that previous adverse care experiences were associated with increased incidence of gastrointestinal symptoms in youth. Gastrointestinal symptoms were also associated with concurrent and future anxiety (measured across 5 years), and those gastrointestinal symptoms mediated the adversity–anxiety association at Time 1. In a subsample of children who provided both stool samples and functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain (Study 2, which was a “proof-of-principle”), adversity was associated with changes in diversity (both alpha and beta) of microbial communities, and bacteria levels (adversity-associated and adversity-independent) were correlated with prefrontal cortex activation to emotional faces. Implications of these data for supporting youth mental health are discussed.
Early institutional rearing is associated with increased risk for subsequent peer relationship difficulties, but the underlying mechanisms have not been identified. Friendship characteristics, social behaviors with peers, normed assessments of social problems, and social cue use were assessed in 142 children (mean age = 10.06, SD = 2.02; range 7–13 years), of whom 67 were previously institutionalized (PI), and 75 were raised by their biological families. Anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, often elevated among PI children, were examined as potential mediators of PI status and baseline social functioning and longitudinal follow-ups (2 and 4 years later). Twenty-seven percent of PI children fell above the Child Behavior Checklist Social Problems cutoff. An examination of specific social behaviors with peers indicated that PI and comparison children did not differ in empathic concern or peer social approach, though parents were more likely to endorse aggression/overarousal as a reason that PI children might struggle with friendships. Comparison children outperformed PI children in computerized testing of social cue use learning. Finally, across these measures, social difficulties exhibited in the PI group were mediated by ADHD symptoms with predicted social problems assessed 4 years later. These findings show that, when PI children struggle with friendships, mechanisms involving attention and behavior regulation are likely contributors.
Early caregiving adversity is associated with increased risk for social difficulties. The ventral striatum and associated corticostriatal circuitry, which have demonstrated vulnerability to early exposures to adversity, are implicated in many aspects of social behavior, including social play, aggression, and valuation of social stimuli across development. Here, we used resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the degree to which early caregiving adversity was associated with altered coritocostriatal resting connectivity in previously institutionalized youth (n = 41) relative to youth who were raised with their biological families from birth (n = 47), and the degree to which this connectivity was associated with parent-reported social problems. Using a seed-based approach, we observed increased positive coupling between the ventral striatum and anterior regions of medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) in previously institutionalized youth. Stronger ventral striatum–mPFC coupling was associated with parent reports of social problems. A moderated-mediation analysis showed that ventral striatal–mPFC connectivity mediated group differences in social problems, and more so with increasing age. These findings show that early institutional care is associated with differences in resting-state connectivity between the ventral striatum and the mPFC, and this connectivity seems to play an increasingly important role in social behaviors as youth enter adolescence.
Institutional caregiving is associated with significant deviations from species-expected caregiving, altering the normative sequence of attachment formation and placing children at risk for long-term emotional difficulties. However, little is known about factors that can promote resilience following early institutional caregiving. In the current study, we investigated how adaptations in affective processing (i.e., positive valence bias) and family-level protective factors (i.e., secure parent–child relationships) moderate risk for internalizing symptoms in previously institutionalized (PI) youth. Children and adolescents with and without a history of institutional care performed a laboratory-based affective processing task and self-reported measures of parent–child relationship security. PI youth were more likely than comparison youth to show positive valence biases when interpreting ambiguous facial expressions. Both positive valence bias and parent–child relationship security moderated the association between institutional care and parent-reported internalizing symptoms, such that greater positive valence bias and more secure parent–child relationships predicted fewer symptoms in PI youth. However, when both factors were tested concurrently, parent–child relationship security more strongly moderated the link between PI status and internalizing symptoms. These findings suggest that both individual-level adaptations in affective processing and family-level factors of secure parent–child relationships may ameliorate risk for internalizing psychopathology following early institutional caregiving.
Early-life adversity is a well-established risk factor for the development of depression later in life. Here we discuss the relationship between early-life adversity and depression, focusing specifically on effects of early-life caregiver deprivation on alterations in the neural and behavioral substrates of reward-processing. We also examine vulnerability to depression within the context of sensitive periods of neural development and the timing of adverse exposure. We further review the development of the ventral striatum, a limbic structure implicated in reward processing, and its role in depressive outcomes following early-life adversity. Finally, we suggest a potential neurobiological mechanism linking early-life adversity and altered ventral striatal development. Together these findings may help provide further insight into the role of reward circuitry dysfunction in psychopathological outcomes in both clinical and developmental populations.
Little is known about the long-term neural consequences of adverse life events for healthy adolescents, and this is particularly the case for events that occur after a putative stress-sensitive period in early childhood. In this functional magnetic resonance imaging study of healthy adolescents, we found that prior exposure to severe adverse life events was associated with current anxiety and with increased amygdala reactivity to standardized emotional stimuli (viewing of fearful faces relative to calm ones). Conjunction analyses identified multiple regions, including the amygdala, insula, and prefrontal cortex, in which reactivity to emotional faces covaried with life events as well as with current anxiety. Our morphometric analyses suggest systemic alterations in structural brain development with an association between anxiety symptoms and global gray matter volume. No life events were reported for the period before 4 years of age, suggesting that these results were not driven by exposure to stress during an early sensitive period in development. Overall, these data suggest systemic effects of traumatic events on the dynamically developing brain that are present even in a nonclinical sample of adolescents.
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