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Neurobiology of Emotion Regulation and Developmental Stress

Anxiety and depression present growing challenges in our society. While we have come far in identifying how these disorders influence our thoughts and actions, research on the early risk factors for these symptoms, and how they are embodied during childhood and adolescence, is critically needed.

In recent work, our researchers have shown that early maternal stress factors such as high levels of depression and financial worries predicted a cascade of biological and behavioral differences linked to anxiety in the children as they developed into teenage girls. In this work, teenagers who experienced higher maternal stress in infancy and who have heightened cortisol levels in early childhood went on to show lower brain connectivity in neural pathways important for emotion regulation.

In this study, participants of both sexes now in their early 20s who were selected from the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work are returning to the lab, where researchers are exploring participants’ continued development into adulthood.

Our researchers believe this work highlights our collective responsibility to identify maternal depression in the postpartum period and to provide significant support for families following a child’s birth and throughout early childhood. Such support can alleviate family distress and provide the stable groundwork critical in preventing the development of depressive and anxious symptoms in adolescence and beyond.

People Working on This Study

Cory Burghy
Former Assistant Scientist, Center for Healthy Minds
Richard J. Davidson
Founder, Center for Healthy Minds & Healthy Minds Innovations, William James & Vilas Professor of Psychology & Psychiatry
Cecilia Westbrook
Former Graduate Student, Center for Healthy Minds

Related Publications

Burghy, C. A., Fox, M. E., Cornejo, M. D., Stodola, D. E., Sommerfeldt, S. L., Westbrook, C. A., Van Hulle, C., Schmidt, N. L., Goldsmith, H. H., Davidson, R. J., & Birn, R. M. (2016). Experience-driven differences in childhood cortisol predict affect-relevant brain function and coping in adolescent monozygotic twins. Scientific Reports, 6, 37081. doi:10.1038/srep37081 PMCID: PMC5181835
Herringa, R. J., Burghy, C. A., Stodola, D. E., Fox, M. E., Davidson, R. J., & Essex, M. J. (2016). Enhanced prefrontal-amygdala connectivity following childhood adversity as a protective mechanism against internalizing in adolescence. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 1(4), 326-34. doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2016.03.003 PCMID: PMC5055123
Hanson, J. L., Nacewicz, B. M., Sutterer, M. J., Cayo, A. A., Schaefer, S. M., Rudolph, K. D., Shirtcliff, E. A., Pollak, S. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Behavior problems after early life stress: Contributions of the hippocampus and amygdala. Biological Psychiatry, 77(4), 314–323. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.04.020 PMCID: PMC4241384
Herringa, R. J., Birn, R. M., Ruttle, P. L., Burghy, C. A., Stodola, D. E., Davidson, R. J., & Essex, M. J. (2013). Childhood maltreatment is associated with altered fear circuitry and increased internalizing symptoms by late adolescence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(47), 19119–24. doi:10.1073/pnas.1310766110 PMCID: PMC3839755
Burghy, C. A., Stodola, D. E., Ruttle, P. L., Molloy, E. K., Armstrong, J. M., Oler, J. A., Fox, M. E., Hayes, A. S., Kalin, N. H., Essex, M. J., Davidson R. J., & Birn R. M. (2012). Developmental pathways to amygdala-prefrontal function and internalizing symptoms in adolescence. Nature Neuroscience, 15(12), 1736. doi:10.1038/nn.3257 PMCID: PMC3509229
Lapate, R. C., Lee, H., Salomons, T. V., van Reekum, C. M., Greischar, L. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2012). Amygdalar function reflects common individual differences in emotion and pain regulation success. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24(1), 148-158. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00125 PMCID: PMC3298185
Lee, H., Heller, A. S., van Reekum, C. M., Nelson, B, & Davidson, R. J. (2012). Amygdala-prefrontal coupling underlies individual differences in emotion regulation. Neuroimage, 62(3), 1575-81. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.05.044 PMCID: PMC3408571
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