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Autonomic Nervous System Inflexibility During Parent–child Interactions is Related to Callous-unemotional Traits in Youth Aged 10–14 Years Old

Abstract

Youth with callous-unemotional (CU) traits are at high risk for aggression and antisocial behavior. Extant literature suggests that CU traits are related to abnormal autonomic responses to negatively-valenced emotional stimuli, although few studies have tested autonomic responding specifically during social interactions. To address this knowledge gap, the current study tested whether CU traits were related to autonomic activity, assessed via respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), during several parent–child interaction tasks designed to provoke negative emotion. The sample was 162 clinically referred youth (M age = 12.03, SD = .92; 47% female). Using piecewise latent growth models, we estimated individual differences in RSA during three semi-structured social interaction tasks (reading aloud to a parent and research assistant; a recovery period from the reading task; and a parent–child conflict discussion) and tested whether CU traits were related to patterns of RSA responding across tasks. Overall, youth showed expected RSA decreases during the reading period, increases in RSA during recovery, and further decreases during the conflict discussion. However, youth with clinically-elevated CU traits had a different pattern of RSA change across tasks, such that CU traits were related to significantly less RSA change during reading and recovery. Findings suggest that less RSA engagement during social interactions and less RSA recovery may be a biomarker of CU traits. Future research is needed to examine whether this inflexibility contributes to the development of CU traits beginning early in childhood.

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Notes

  1. Three participants had missing data for the PPVT. These assessments were invalid due to lack of child engagement at the baseline assessment. Subsequently, we completed an alternative assessment (the Expressive Vocabulary Test [EVT]; Williams, 1997) which yielded valid scores (based on participant engagement) of an estimated IQ above the cutoff. Given that the PPVT and EVT are different assessments, we elected to be more conservative and coded the baseline PPVT score as missing for those participants.

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Acknowledgements

Research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (R01 MH101088; F32 MH110077; T32 MH018951; K01 MH119216). The authors thank all the families who took part in this study and the MoodY study team, which includes research assistants, interviewers and their supervisors, data managers, student workers, and volunteers. The authors have declared that they have no competing or potential conflicts of interest.

Funding

Research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (R01 MH101088; F32 MH110077; T32 MH018951; K01 MH119216).

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Correspondence to Rebecca Waller.

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All study procedures were approved by the Human Research Protection Office (HRPO) and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) pediatric practice-based research network.

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Perlstein, S., Waller, R., Wagner, N. et al. Autonomic Nervous System Inflexibility During Parent–child Interactions is Related to Callous-unemotional Traits in Youth Aged 10–14 Years Old. Res Child Adolesc Psychopathol 49, 1581–1592 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-021-00849-2

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Keywords

  • Autonomic flexibility
  • Callous-unemotional traits
  • Latent growth curve modeling
  • Parasympathetic activity
  • RSA