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What Doesn’t Kill You May Not Make You Stronger: How Childhood Adversity Affects Resilience Later in Life

Author: Stacy W. Kish

Sad, male child.

For decades, researchers have explored how childhood adversity affects mental health and the connection to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders, and substance abuse. Scott Langenecker, PhD, professor of Psychiatry at University of Utah Health wanted to know if adversity rewired the brain, increasing vulnerability to mood disorders later in life. The results of his new study were published online in the October issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

“People who experience adversity during adolescence may not be exposed to the right skills to model for greater resiliency in adulthood and then later in life,” said Langenecker, senior author on the paper. “As a result, the brain may develop differently, preventing the person from meeting their maximum potential.”

Langenecker conducted this retrospective study to test if he could replicate results from an earlier paper that examined the same question using patients with and without bipolar disorder. In the new study, the team obtained functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) for 93 young adults (ages 1823; 53 with depression and 40 healthy controls) to identify how the absence of positive experiences (like words of love and support) and addition of negative experiences (like abuse) affect how the brain functions.

Their results suggest that neglect and abuse  disrupts how the brain is wired, making it more difficult for a person to focus and control their emotions, including negative thoughts. In particular, he identified three regions of the brain  the cognitive control network, the salience and emotion network, and the default mode network  that were affected.

“I was really surprised by how pervasive the effects were,” Langenecker said. “I was expecting the negative experiences to affect very specific networks in the brain, but it was much more of a global brain impact.”

Langenecker is interested in applying brain games that can strengthen the neural networks negatively affected by childhood adversity. “It’s like going to the gym and lifting weights to strengthen certain muscles,” he said.

By strengthening different neural networks, Langenecker believes it may be possible to build resilience, lessoning the vulnerability to mood disorders.

Langenecker acknowledges the participants volunteered for this study, and their willingness to self-select for a study to advance research may impart a subtle bias in the results.

“While tons of kids experience adversity and most do not experience negative long-term consequences, adversity does increase the risk for a mood and other disorders,” Langenecker said. “We may not be able to change the source of adversity or how the child experiences adversity, but we may be able to give them tools to cope with it to decrease the risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse and bipolar disorders later in life.”

Langenecker was joined by Meghan Quinn, Jonathan Strange, Lisanne Jenkins, Samantha Corwin, Sophie Del Donno, Katie Bessette, and Robert Welsh on the article, titled Cognitive Control and Network Disruption in Remitted Depression, published online on October 25 in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

The work was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the University of Illinois at Chicago Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program.