Background: Early life adversities including harsh parenting, maternal depression, neighborhood deprivation, and low family economic resources are more prevalent in low-income urban environments and are potent predictors of psychopathology, including, for boys, antisocial behavior (AB). However, little research has examined how these stressful experiences alter later neural function. Moreover, identifying genetic markers of greater susceptibility to adversity is critical to understanding biopsychosocial pathways from early adversity to later psychopathology.
Methods: Within a sample of 310 low-income boys followed from age 1.5 to 20, multimethod assessments of adversities were examined at age 2 and age 12. At age 20, amygdala reactivity to emotional facial expressions was assessed using fMRI, and symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder were assessed via structured clinical interview. Genetic variability in cortisol signaling (CRHR1) was examined as a moderator of pathways to amygdala reactivity.
Results: Observed parenting and neighborhood deprivation at age 2 each uniquely predicted amygdala reactivity to emotional faces at age 20 over and above other adversities measured at multiple developmental periods. Harsher parenting and greater neighborhood deprivation in toddlerhood predicted clinically-significant symptoms of AB via less amygdala reactivity to fearful facial expressions and this pathway was moderated by genetic variation in CRHR1.
Conclusions: These results elucidate a pathway linking early adversity to less amygdala reactivity to social signals of interpersonal distress 18 years later, which in turn increased risk for serious AB. Moreover, these findings suggest a genetic marker of youth more susceptible to adversity.
Keywords: Neurogenetics; antisocial behavior; early life adversity; fMRI; harsh parenting; stress.