Early life stress (ELS) encompasses a broad range of experiences, including, but not limited to, childhood sexual abuse, emotional abuse, maltreatment, neglect, and loss of a parent. The ways in which children respond to these events vary, but it has been well established that ELS increases risk for psychological problems later in life, and in particular, depression. However, many children who have experienced ELS do not develop depression later in life. Neurological markers could provide clues as to which individuals may be more vulnerable to depression as a result of ELS.
To explore this issue further and determine what neurological indices could predict vulnerability or resiliency, Josh Cisler of the Brain Imagining Research Center and the Psychiatric Research Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences recently led a study comparing neurological imaging scans of a group of women between the ages of 18 and 44 years old. The women were categorized as having a history of ELS without depression (resilient – 7), ELS with a history of depression (vulnerable – 19), and having neither depression nor ELS history (control – 12).
Based on resting MRIs of the women, Cisler found differences in the three groups, with the most significant difference between the resilient and vulnerable women. Specifically, the women in the resilient group had more intact emotional processing and emotional regulation neural connectivity than the vulnerable women. Regions of the amygdala responsible for detecting and interpreting motivational cues were overactive in the vulnerable group, which has been shown to increase risk of rumination and negative mood. Lower neural efficiency suggests that vulnerable women may take longer to process information, thus putting them at increased risk for prolonged states of negative affect via emotional bias.
Cisler believes that these results shed light on how neurological functional connectivity can increase vulnerability to depression as a result of stress. He also noted that in this study, the severity of depressive symptoms did not influence vulnerability as much as the severity of ELS. In other words, the more severe and traumatic the ELS, the more vulnerable the women were to depression. Cisler added, “These preliminary results suggest functional neural connectivity patterns specific to ELS exposure and resiliency versus susceptibility to the depressogenic effects of ELS exposure.”
Cisler, J. M., et al. (2013). Differential functional connectivity within an emotion regulation neural network among individuals resilient and susceptible to the depressogenic effects of early life stress. Psychological Medicine 43.3 (2013): 507-18.ProQuest. Web.
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