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.

Recent Findings

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.

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Fig. 1
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  1. 1.

    In the forced swim test, rats are placed in a tall container of water while the experimenter records how much time the rat spends swimming and how much time the rat spends passively floating. Swimming is interpreted as an active coping mechanism, whereas floating is interpreted as a sign of “behavioral despair,” one component of major depressive disorder. Rats that have higher immobility time on this test are said to be exhibiting more depressive-like behavior [82] (see Fig. 2).

  2. 2.

    The elevated plus maze is a cross-shaped maze consisting of two arms enclosed by walls and two arms without walls. Rodents normally avoid open spaces where they are more exposed to predators but also have a natural tendency to explore novel environments. When a rat is placed in the center of the maze, it is presented with a conflict between moving into the dimly lit enclosed arms and exploring the exposed arms. The amount of time rats spend in the open arms and in the closed arms is counted; more time spent in the closed arms is indicative of increased anxiety-like behavior [94] (see Fig. 2).


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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.

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Correspondence to Julie Boulanger-Bertolus or Jacek Debiec.

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Dr. Julie Boulanger-Bertolus, Amanda M. White, and Dr. Jacek Debiec declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

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This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.

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This article is part of the Topical Collection on Child and Developmental Psychiatry

Julie Boulanger-Bertolus and Amanda M. White are co-first authors and contributed equally to this work.

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Boulanger-Bertolus, J., White, A.M. & Debiec, J. Enduring Neural and Behavioral Effects of Early Life Adversity in Infancy: Consequences of Maternal Abuse and Neglect, Trauma and Fear. Curr Behav Neurosci Rep 4, 107–116 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40473-017-0112-y

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  • Brain development
  • Infant
  • Maternal care
  • Critical period
  • Stress
  • Maltreatment