Enduring Neural and Behavioral Effects of Early Life Adversity in Infancy: Consequences of Maternal Abuse and Neglect, Trauma and Fear
Purpose of Review
Early life experiences have long-lasting influence on a child. For an infant, the quality of caregiving is one of the most critical factors supporting growth and development. Adverse social events in infancy have the potency to alter the child’s developmental trajectory and elevate the lifetime risk for a range of psychiatric disorders. Although clinical studies associate early childhood adversities with lifetime risk for mental disorders, the knowledge of underlying neural and molecular alterations leading to these disorders comes mostly from animal studies. In this article, we overview selected animal models of early life social adversity, including maternal abuse and neglect, and maternal trauma and fear.
We first characterize the major behavioral and neural changes normally occurring in early life. We then present several animal models of maternally mediated early life adversity that contribute to reorient the developmental changes toward pathological outcomes. These models yielded to recently identified neurobiological mechanisms, including epigenetic alterations, through which these adversities lead to a lasting dysregulation of the stress response system, aberrant fear learning and memory, and increased anxiety or depression-like behaviors.
We conclude by emphasizing the unique role of the caregiver’s influences on the developing brain in infancy. Understanding of the infant’s mechanisms of vulnerability and resilience to maltreatment is essential for the advancement of novel therapeutic and preventive approaches.
KeywordsBrain development Infant Maternal care Critical period Stress Maltreatment
JD was supported by the K08 MH014743-01A1 and NARSAD Young Investigator Award from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. AMW was supported by the NIH Early Stage Training in the Neurosciences Training Grant T32-NS076401.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
Dr. Julie Boulanger-Bertolus, Amanda M. White, and Dr. Jacek Debiec declare that they have no conflicts of interest.
Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent
This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.
Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance
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