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Altered brain structure and risk of developing internalising symptoms associated with early adversity

Adversity during the first six years of life was associated with higher levels of childhood internalising symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, in a group of boys, as well as altered brain structure in late adolescence between the ages of 18 and 21, according to an article by Sarah KG Jenson and Dr Edward Barker of the Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London.  
The paper published today by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics finds both altered brain structure and an increased risk of developing internalising symptoms have been associated with adversity in early life.
The researchers examined how adverse experiences within the first six years of life relate to variations in cortical gray matter volume in the brains of adolescent males, both directly and indirectly, through increased levels of childhood internalizing symptoms.
The study included a group of 494 mother-son pairs whose mothers reported on family adversities encountered by their sons to age six. Mothers also reported on levels of internalising symptoms (depressive and/or anxiety) when the boys were ages 7, 10 and 13. Imaging data from MRIs was collected in late adolescence.
The authors found that among the 494 men included in the analysis, early adversity was associated with alterations in brain structure. Childhood internalizing symptoms were associated with lower gray matter volume in a brain region. Early adversity was associated with higher levels of internalising symptoms, which in turn were associated with a region of lower gray matter volume, which is an example of an indirect effect, according to the results.
According to the lead author, Sarah KG Jensen, “The finding that childhood experiences can affect the brain highlights early childhood not only as a period of vulnerability but also a period of opportunity. Interventions toward adversity might help to prevent children from developing internalising symptoms and protect against abnormal brain development”.

Dr Ted Barker adds:  'We tested and confirmed the hypothesis that variation in brain structure that associates with symptoms of depression does so (in part) through the early experience of adversity. In other words, early adversity can ncrease later symptoms of depression/anxiety, which, in turn, can associate with variation in cortical structure. Although this idea has been around for a while, we were the first to examine it with a prospective longitudinal birth cohort, The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which started in the 1990s.'

Notes to editors

Paper reference: Jenson, S. K. G. et al (2015) 'Effect of Early Adversity and Childhood Internalizing Symptoms on Brain Structure in Young Men' Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1486.

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