Unpredictability in early life is linked to adverse neuropsychiatric outcomes in adulthood

It’s human nature to want stability, but what happens when those needs aren’t met in childhood? A study published in Depression and anxiety suggests that instability in early life is associated with adverse effects in adulthood, including anxiety and depression.

Our experiences as children are of monumental importance when it comes to our outcomes later in life. Early childhood is a particularly formative time due to rapid brain development. Many factors can harm brain development, including poverty, abuse, trauma, malnutrition, neglect, and more. According to previous research, these conditions are risk factors not only for stunted brain development, but also for negative mental health outcomes in adulthood.

Another key factor to consider is fragmentation or unpredictability. It has been shown to have adverse effects, even in the absence of known trauma. The new study aimed to understand how the negative effects of instability in early life may contribute to symptoms in people at psychiatric risk.

For their study, Andrea D. Spadoni and colleagues used 156 adult participants who sought treatment at VA clinics to serve as a sample. Many participants were already seeking treatment for PTSD and/or depression. Mental health symptoms were assessed by self-report measures, and participants spoke with a research assistant about their current level of treatment.

Urine, blood and saliva were collected from participants and participants were assessed up to 3 times with 3 months between visits. Participants completed measures of early life adversity, depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms, anhedonia, suicidal ideation, substance use, and pain.

The results showed that unpredictability in early life was associated with greater symptomatology of depression and anxiety, even in the absence of childhood trauma. Additionally, for those with childhood trauma, instability in early life was linked to worsening symptoms of PTSD, as well as greater symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anhedonia.

These relationships were stable at follow-up appointments, suggesting the longevity of this relationship between childhood unpredictability and worsening symptoms of mental illness. Instability in early life was also associated with increased suicidal ideation.

This study has taken important steps to better understand how the unpredictability of childhood can have detrimental effects on people later in life. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the sample was comprised primarily of veterans, which may limit generalizability. Additionally, self-report measures of early childhood experiences may be unreliable due to memory failure or even repression.

The study, “Contribution of Early Unpredictability to Neuropsychiatric Patterns in Adulthood,” was authored by Andrea D. Spadoni, Meghan Vinograd, Bruna Cuccurazzu, Katy Torres, Laura M. Glynn, Elysia P. Davis, Tallie Z. Baram, Dewleen G. Baker, Caroline M. Nievergelt, and Victoria B. Risbrough.

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