Background: Millions of children are born to parents affected by major psychoses. Cognitive dysfunctions seen in patients are already detectable in these children. In parallel, childhood maltreatment increases the risk of adult psychoses through unknown mechanisms. We investigated whether high-risk offspring exposed to abuse/neglect displayed more cognitive precursors of adult psychoses in childhood and adolescence than nonexposed offspring.
Methods: We used a stepwise selection strategy from a 25-year follow-up of 48 densely affected kindreds including 1500 adults (405 patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) to select high-risk offspring aged 6-22 years for inclusion in our study. All offspring were assessed for childhood trauma from direct interviews with the offspring, parents and relatives and from the review of lifetime medical records of parents and children and administered a neuropsychological battery including IQ and 4 of the most impaired neuropsychological domains in psychoses.
Results: Our study included 66 high-risk offspring. Those who were exposed to abuse/neglect had significantly lower IQ (effect size [ES] = 0.61) than nonexposed offspring and displayed poorer cognitive performance in visual episodic memory (ES = 0.67) and in executive functions of initiation (ES = 1.01). Moreover, exposed offspring presented more combinations of cognitive deficits that were associated with lower Global Assessment of Functioning scores.
Limitations: Exposure to abuse/neglect was not assessed in the control group, thus the study could not test whether the effect of childhood maltreatment occurred only in a high-risk setting and not in the general population.
Conclusion: In high-risk youths, maltreatment in childhood/adolescence may negatively impact cognitive domains known to be impaired in adults with psychoses, suggesting an early mediating effect in the association between abuse/neglect and adult psychoses. This finding provides a target for future developmental and preventive research.