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.

Why victims of childhood adversity have a harder time achieving their goals
  • 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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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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