Stressful or traumatic experiences occurring in a child’s earliest years—birth to age 5—have been linked to reduced hippocampal volume in adolescence, according to a new Vanderbilt University report published in Developmental Science.
“These findings tell us that there may be a ‘sensitive period’ in which stress is more likely to affect the development of the hippocampus, which is connected to learning, memory and mood,” said lead author Kathryn L. Humphreys, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt. “Given that the hippocampus undergoes rapid changes in the first years of life, the effects of stressful experiences during this period, even those the child doesn’t remember, may be particularly important in understanding the development of this region of the brain.”
In the study, 178 early adolescents underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging. They were interviewed using a modified version of the Traumatic Events Screening Inventory for Children. More than 30 different stressors were examined, including parental divorce, moving to a new community, separation from a loved one, illness or death of a close friend or family member, witnessing violence and experiencing abuse.
“These findings tell us that there may be a ‘sensitive period’ in which stress is more likely to affect the development of the hippocampus, which is connected to learning, memory and mood.”
–Kathryn L. Humphreys
“This work underscores the plasticity and vulnerability of the brain in early life,”Humphreys said. “Our findings have important clinical implications given that smaller hippocampal volume has been prospectively linked to a number of outcomes, including vulnerability to psychopathology following trauma, poorer antidepressant treatment response and memory deficits.”
- Read “Evidence for a Sensitive Period in the Effects of Early Life Stress on Hippocampal Volume” in Developmental Science.
- Read Humphreys’ invited paper, “Future Directions in the Study and Treatment of Parent-Child Separation” in this month’s issue of Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.
- Watch a video of Humphreys discussing her research.
More about Dr. Humphreys
- Kathryn L. Humphreys is an assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development. She is the director of the Stress and Early Adversity (SEA) Lab and a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. She is trained as a clinical psychologist and has expertise in infant mental health. She was named an APS Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science in 2018.
- Humphreys’ work centers on identifying pathways to the development of psychopathology. She focuses on caregiving experiences in early life, with a particular interest in identifying targets for prevention and intervention. Her research includes tools from neuroscience, including magnetic resonance imaging as well as biological markers of aging and health.
- Humphreys’ research is supported by the National Institutes of Health; the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation; the National Science Foundation; Klingenstein Third Generation Foundation; Jacobs Foundation; and the Stanford Precision Health and Integrated Diagnostics Center.
- Follow Dr. Humphreys on Twitter at @K_L_Humphreys.