Early-Life Stress Can Have Long-Lasting Impact on Brain Circuitry and Behavior

B.J. Casey, Ph.D., expert on anxiety research and children and adolescence mental health
B.J. Casey, Ph.D.

Early-life stress of “disorganized parental care” or being raised in an orphanage can alter the functioning of the amygdala (the area of the brain that processes fear and other emotional experience), creating issues with emotion regulation and anxious behavior well past the childhood experience. This is the powerful conclusion of a research team led by Foundation Scientific Council member B.J. Casey, Ph.D., and three-time NARSAD Grantee Francis S. Lee, M.D., Ph.D., both of Weill Cornell Medical College.

Publishing the results of a new study October 21st in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team describes experiments in mice exposed to stress explicitly designed to mimic the stress experienced by children who are raised parentless, in orphanages. “We found evidence of both early and persistent alterations in amygdala circuitry and function following early-life stress,” the team writes.

The findings, they continue, “are similar to our human findings in children adopted from orphanages abroad.” Even following removal from the orphanage, the ability of such children to suppress attention to potentially threatening information―as opposed to focusing on positive, goal-directed behavior―was observed to be diminished compared with children who were never institutionalized.

The Weill Cornell team, which also included Deqiang Jing, M.D., Ph.D., a 2012 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee, noted that the impact of adoption on orphans has not been measured with sufficient rigor to determine adoption’s impact on brain and behavior impacts of pre-adoption stress. Their own findings, however, “underscore the importance of early-life experiences on later development,” the scientists said, and they highlight the need for early intervention in children who are deemed at risk following stressful experiences occurring early in their lives.

Read an abstract of this research.