Why victims of childhood adversity have a harder time achieving their goals

Childhood trauma can affect a child's brain in dramatic ways for the rest of their lives.

  • New findings suggest that childhood adversity may be directly linked to depression.
  • Adverse childhood experiences include a wide range of stressful or traumatic events brought upon by abuse and neglect.
  • Important landmark studies from the '90s suggest that these experiences are common and lead to a number of health, social and behavioral problems throughout life.

Much research has gone into defining and learning about adverse childhood experiences (ACE). These types of experiences include abuse, witnessing domestic violence or growing up in an environment with family members who have substance abuse disorders. Researchers say that ACEs are strongly correlated with the development of a wide range of health problems throughout an individual's life.

When children are exposed to chronic stress, neurodevelopment is disrupted and new unhealthy coping mechanisms may arise out of this. Over time these develop into mental illnesses, disabilities and other assorted problems. This said, new research published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in October suggests that there is, indeed, a connection between childhood adversity and depression.

Parameters of the study

In the new study, researchers were concerned with an important part of cognitive control that is known as inhibitory control – that is, the ability to inhibit one's natural impulses to stimuli to select, instead, behaviors that are more in line with completing goals.

Researchers stated that:

Cognitive control impairment is associated with depression and has been observed in the remitted phase of illness.

In order to test their hypothesis regarding the connection, they gathered 53 individuals with a remitted major depressive disorder along with 40 non-depressive healthy individuals for their control.

The participants of the study took a Go/No-Go task, which is a computerized test meant to assess inhibitory control. They were also asked to complete a survey on childhood adversity and any current stresses they were facing. Additionally, they all underwent fMRI scanning sessions overviewing their gray matter volumes and resting state brain connectivity.

The researchers found that participants who reported higher level of childhood adversity tended to exhibit poorer inhibitory control. This was true in both groups even after controlling for depression symptoms and current stressors.

Lead researcher Scott. A Langenecker of the University of Utah, found that childhood adversity was tied into and associated with three major brain networks:

  • Cognitive control network
  • Salience and emotion network
  • Default mode network

In an interview with the PsyPost, Langenecker stated:

We know that depression is different for each person, and for some it is a recurrent, chronic illness somewhat like diabetes. We should be asking critical questions of our health care systems, insurance companies and providers about how we can better maintain wellness and prevent recurrence.

Relationship between ACEs and risk factors for disease

There have been many studies throughout the years describing the connection between ACEs and disease. In a landmark study between 1995 to 1997, over 17,000 participants were gathered and tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in partnership with Kaiser Permanente.

The results were as follows:

ACES are common, with 28 percent of the participants reporting some kind of physical or sexual abuse. Many also reported that experiencing a divorce or parental separation resulted in some kind mental disorder or substance abuse.

The recent research pointed to a similar conclusion:

Treatment can be preventative and does not need to be reactive. Higher levels of care and proactive prevention can reduce bad outcomes (like relationship problems and divorce, education difficulties, low work productivity and quality — presenteeism — and risk for suicide).

Now that the connection between childhood adversity, lessened inhibitory control and depression have been confidently linked – this opens up the way for future ways of treatment. The authors ended out their study with the following conclusion:

Our finding of an association between CA (childhood adversity) and inhibitory control impairment, independent of diagnosis, suggests that future research on the role of inhibitory control impairment in depression should consider the influence of CA. Finally, given research suggesting that impairment in cognitive control is associated with a distinct course of illness and response to treatment, future research may benefit from examining whether CA, and associated inhibitory control impairment, contributes to a distinct course of depression.

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