Considerable work indicates that early cumulative risk exposure is aversive to human development, but very little research has examined the neurological underpinnings of these robust findings. This study investigates amygdala volume and reactivity to facial stimuli among adults (mean 23.7 years of age, n=54) as a function of cumulative risk exposure during childhood (9 and 13 years of age). In addition, we test to determine whether expected cumulative risk elevations in amygdala volume would mediate functional reactivity of the amygdala during socioemotional processing. Risks included substandard housing quality, noise, crowding, family turmoil, child separation from family, and violence. Total and left hemisphere adult amygdala volumes were positively related to cumulative risk exposure during childhood. The links between childhood cumulative risk exposure and elevated amygdala responses to emotionally neutral facial stimuli in adulthood were mediated by the corresponding amygdala volumes. Cumulative risk exposure in later adolescence (17 years of age), however, was unrelated to subsequent adult amygdala volume or function. Physical and socioemotional risk exposures early in life appear to alter amygdala development, rendering adults more reactive to ambiguous stimuli such as neutral faces. These stress-related differences in childhood amygdala development might contribute to the well-documented psychological distress as a function of early risk exposure.
- Amygdala function
- Amygdala volume
- Cumulative risk
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience