Early-Life Experiences Affect Brain Development Into Adolescence
WASHINGTON, DC — Studies released today reveal that maternal and early-life stress impact key brain structures in children, potentially contributing to the development of addictive behaviors, mental health disorders, and emotional problems later in life. Another study shows that the presence of a caregiver helps children to regulate their emotional responses until the brain circuits responsible for this task mature. The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2014, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.
The societal costs associated with addictive behaviors, emotional problems, and mental health disorders are substantial. Understanding the role that early-life experiences play in the subsequent development of these conditions may be a first step toward finding ways to prevent the occurrence of these serious health issues.
Today’s new findings show that:
- Early-life stress appears to reduce the number of a key receptor in the brain’s reward center; this same receptor is linked to subsequent development of addictive-like behaviors in mice (Scott John Mitchell, MS, presentation 782.13, see attached summary).
- Exposure to abuse or neglect during childhood is associated with differences in the development of circuits in the brain’s decision-making center during adolescence, impacting the regulation of emotions and impulses (Elizabeth Cox, PhD, presentation 675.11, see attached summary).
- A caretaker’s presence buffers children against emotional reactivity and influences the function of brain circuits regulating emotion. These circuits mature by adolescence, at which time they are no longer influenced by a caretaker’s presence (Dylan Gee, MA, presentation 836.02, see attached summary).
Another recent finding discussed shows that:
- The combination of maternal stress during pregnancy and prenatal exposure to air pollution increases anxiety-like behavior in offspring (Jessica Lynn Bolton, BS, presentation 584.01).
“We are gaining new insight into how maternal and childhood stressors and caregiver relationships affect brain development,” said moderator Martha Farah, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Clear correlations between early-life experiences and the function of specific brain circuits and receptors point toward new directions for preventing and treating mental health disorders.”
This research was supported by national funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health as well as other private and philanthropic organizations. Find out more about the neuroscience of early development at BrainFacts.org.Read the full press release and study abstracts »