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Brain Programming by Early-Life Stress

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Front. Behav. Neurosci. | doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2019.00080

Differential Associations between Deprivation and Threat with Cognitive Control and Fear Conditioning in Early Childhood

Laura S. Machlin1*,  Adam B. Miller1, Jenna Snyder1, Katie A. McLaughlin2 and  Margaret A. Sheridan3
  • 1University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, United States
  • 2Harvard University, United States
  • 3Psychology and Neuroscience Department, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, United States

Early-life adversity (ELA) is strongly associated with risk for psychopathology. Within adversity, deprivation and threat may lead to psychopathology through different intermediary pathways. Specifically, deprivation, defined as the absence of expected cognitive and social inputs, is associated with lower performance on complex cognitive tasks whereas threatening experiences, defined as the presence of experiences that reflect harm to the child, are associated with atypical fear learning and emotional processes. However, distinct associations of deprivation and threat on behavioral outcomes have not been examined in early childhood. The present study examines how deprivation and threat are associated with cognitive and emotional outcomes in early childhood. Children 4-7 years old (N=63) completed behavioral tasks assessing cognitive control and fear conditioning; deprivation and threat were assessed using child interview and parent questionnaires. Regression analyses were performed including deprivation and threat scores and controls for age, gender and IQ. Because this is the first time these variables have been examined in early childhood, interactions with age were also examined. Deprivation, but not threat was associated with worse performance on the cognitive control task. Threat, but not deprivation interacted with age to predict fear learning. Young children who experienced high levels of threat showed evidence of fear learning measured by differential skin conductance response even at the earliest age measured. In contrast, for children not exposed to threat, fear learning emerged only in older ages. Children who experienced higher levels of threat also showed blunted reactivity measured by amplitude of skin conductance response to the reinforced stimuli regardless of age. Results suggest differential influences of deprivation and threat on cognitive and emotional outcomes even in early childhood. Future work should examine the neural mechanisms underlying these behavioral changes and link changes with increased risk for negative outcomes associated with adversity exposure, such as psychopathology.

Keywords: deprivation, threat, cognitive control, Fear conditioning, Early Childhood

Received: 05 Feb 2019; Accepted: 02 Apr 2019.

Edited by:

Richard G. Hunter, University of Massachusetts Boston, United States

Reviewed by:

Jennifer S. Stevens, Emory University School of Medicine, United States
Johanna M. Jarcho, Temple University, United States  

Copyright: © 2019 Machlin, Miller, Snyder, McLaughlin and Sheridan. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Ms. Laura S. Machlin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, 27599, North Carolina, United States, lmachlin@email.unc.edu