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05-25 Early life stress linked to impaired reward activity, study finds

Posted in Children, Research, stress

Early life stress linked to impaired reward activity, study finds

Children learn how to cope with adverse and stressful situations as part of their healthy development. Similar to adults, children may worry about their performance at school, making friends, dealing with peer pressure, and meeting the additional demands and pressures from a number of sources, including parents, teachers, coaches and peers. In most instances, the stress experienced by children is positive and necessary for providing them with the energy they need to complete the task at hand.

While most children are able to respond and adapt to the various demands and pressures placed on them by others as well as with the challenges they face on a daily basis without any major consequences, stress affects every person differently. Too much stress for too long can begin to take a toll on children’s overall health. In addition, adverse childhood experiences — such as emotional, physical or psychological abuse or neglect, parental divorce, the death of a loved one, familial economic hardship, and parental mental illness and substance abuse — can be traumatic, painful and frightening, and can contribute to overwhelming feelings of stress, which can be difficult for children to deal with.

Consequences of stress on the limbic system

The long-term activation of the stress response can have a negative impact on the structure and function of important areas of the brain, including the amygdala (emotional processing), the hippocampus (memory) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (emotional and behavioral regulation and control), which collectively play a role in how we perceive, process and respond to stress. Children exposed to early life stress have been found to have smaller amygdala and hippocampal volumes, and greater cumulative stress was associated with a higher prevalence of behavior problems later, according to a study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

A total of 128 children who had either experienced early caregiving neglect (n = 36), came from a low socioeconomic status (SES) household (n = 20) or were victims of physical abuse (n = 31), and 41 children from middle-class SES households with no history of maltreatment were recruited to participate in the study. The researchers found that children who had experienced early neglect and children from low SES households had smaller left amygdalae than the comparison children. In addition, children from low SES and who had experienced physical abuse had smaller left and right hippocampi compared to the controls. Further, greater behavioral problems (e.g., disobeying rules) were related to smaller left amygdala volumes and smaller hippocampal volumes. The study suggested that two brain regions involved in emotion regulation and processing — the amygdala and hippocampus — are particularly affected by early life stress.

Consequences of early life stress on the reward system

Children’s exposure to stressful early life experiences may also contribute to decreased motivation and increased negative mood through blunted reward-related activity in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain that is important for generating positive emotions and processing rewarding experiences, according to a recent study conducted by Jamie L. Hanson, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, and colleagues.

A sample of male participants was assessed annually from kindergarten through grade 12 to determine the relationship between early life stress exposure and reward-related brain activity. Using structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, the researchers examined the differences in activity in the ventral striatum in 72 males while they participated in a simple card-guessing task to assess reward-related brain activity. Their results suggested that higher cumulative life stress during childhood and adolescence was associated with lower ventral striatum activity during reward processing. Specifically, early life stress between kindergarten and grade 3, but not later in development, was associated with blunted activity of the ventral striatum in response to reward.

These results suggest that greater levels of childhood stress can contribute to decreased reward-related activity in the ventral striatum. This blunted activity in the ventral striatum potentially leads to reductions in positive psychosocial factors such as hopefulness, optimism and positive affect, which may increase the vulnerability for developing depression later in life.

Overall, studies have indicated that early life stress is a major risk factor for mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, as well as cognitive impairments, stress-related disorders, and learning and behavioral problems throughout life. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego provides comprehensive behavioral health treatment services for adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems. For more information about the programs offered at our Rancho San Diego facility, please contact our 24/7 helpline for further assistance.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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